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Howard Gardner
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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education / Harvard Graduate School of Education
Updated: 2 hours 16 min ago

Excellence in Higher Education Summit

7 hours 5 min ago

From April 4-5, 2019, Harvard University hosted a summit on “Excellence in Higher Education” organized by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Speakers included leaders and researchers from across Harvard and a number of other institutions, including Howard Gardner, who spoke on the topic of the national study of the college experience in the United States that he has conducted for the past seven years.

Gardner shared several takeaways from the data thus far, including the prevalence of mental health as an issue for students today, the “transactional” attitude with which students often approach college, and the need for institutions of higher learning to avoid “mission sprawl” and “projectitis.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has also released a brief summary of the conference, which provides an overview of Gardner’s presentation. Click here to read the article in full.

Categories: Blog

Harvard Magazine Covers Gardner’s Higher Education Study

April 18, 2019 - 1:10pm

The May-June issue of Harvard Magazine has published an article by John S. Rosenberg, Editor in Chief, about Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman’s national study of higher edition.

Summarizing the motivations and methods of the study, Rosenberg provides an overview as well of the initial findings regarding the primacy of mental health and belonging on college campuses, as well as the mental models with which students approach their college experiences.

Click here to read the article in full.


Categories: Blog

On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 3

April 1, 2019 - 12:08pm

To Our Readers: After some reflection, we’ve decided to violate the “rules of the road” with respect to the preferred length of blogs, and we are releasing the second and third blogs in this series at the same time. As always, we welcome and learn from your comments, sent either as notes to us or posted here on the site.

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Re-Embracing the Liberal Arts: The Pivotal Roles of On-Boarding and Intertwining

In the previous blog, we called for an affirmation—or, more properly, a reaffirmation—of the academic and cognitive aims of higher education. Why is it challenging to re-embrace fully the core of a liberal arts education? We have identified two principal reasons.

One reason is mission sprawl. As one learns about so-called liberal arts institutions today, one swiftly encounters a wide range of aspirations, many of which have little to do with academic or even cognitive aspirations. Colleges are expected to produce good citizens; kind and empathic human beings; happy persons who are self-realized; individuals who want to lead the world, change the world, be good team players, make the world better; individuals who are healthier in mind and body. We admire these aspirations. But it’s clear that no institution can achieve all of these goals (see our recent blog on takeaways for college presidents), and it’s not at all clear that colleges—as campuses, as institutions, indeed as economic enterprises—can or should aim for all of these goals.

Indeed, we contend that at most one other goal can be prioritized, and that goal needs to be thoughtfully integrated with the aforementioned academic and cognitive mission.

The second reason stems from the personal challenges that face many students. When we began our own study some years ago, we were completely unprepared for two major findings across a deliberately disparate set of campuses. We found that challenges of mental health were encountered everywhere, and were, for whatever reasons, on the increase. And across campuses, we found as well (and presumably relatedly) that a large number of students reported their feeling that they did not belong; they felt alienated in one or another way—from the academic agenda, from their peers, from the overall institutions. And to our surprise, this alienation proved more prominent among graduating students than among incoming students!

Of course, colleges did not arise chiefly to address these personal issues, any more than they arose to increase voting or encourage fraternizing or to better the neighborhood or engender personal happiness. But it is simply not possible for colleges to address the principal educational mission we’ve assigned them if a significant proportion of students can’t get past their own feelings of alienation or their mental health challenges.

Indeed, these challenges need to be addressed upfront for students at the beginning of the college experience.


Four years can pass quickly. If there is any chance that colleges are able to address and achieve the assignment that we have proposed, they need initially to carry out four important tasks.

First of all, they have to help students deal with their difficulties in health (physical as well as mental).

Second, they must provide suitable and appealing entries to the academic agenda (to prevent the drift away from academics that has been persuasively documented by Richard Arum and other scholars).

Third, students need to understand why they are being asked to study statistics, stylistics, historical or economic cycles, what the reasons are for reading original texts or carrying out laboratory experiments. They need to grasp that they are not being asked to remember the facts that they encounter but rather that they learn to think in the ways required by different disciplines.

And a fourth point: Schools need to develop courses and materials that invite students into the range of “ways of thinking”: problem solving, problem finding, and exhibiting knowledge that we have argued are the major, and perhaps the most powerful, reasons for offering non-vocational higher education. As we have sometimes put it, at this point in life students will be acquiring intellectual capital on which they can and should draw for the rest of their lives.

We propose that these onboarding experiences are the tasks primarily for the first year, but it may well be that students will need additional “onboarding” as they face new contexts—as they meet different people, choose majors and minors, and discover curiosities and passions. Importantly, new initiatives do not need to be created to help students onboard: the tasks can be and should be integrated into existing structures. And if after these efforts, students can truly not meet these challenges, with the help of teachers and appropriate institutional facilities and facilitators, they should not be enrolled in college at this time in their lives

Resistances to Our Proposed Program

Most institutions of higher learning do not embrace, either explicitly or implicitly, the focused agenda that we’ve proposed. We can identify several reasons:

Unreasonable ambitions. Some schools, including ones with which we have been closely associated, believe that they can and should achieve a wide range of goals in four years. And perhaps with some students—the same ones or different ones—they can claim across-the-board success. But it is far more likely that in the perhaps well-motivated effort to achieve a wider range of goals, they in fact realize none of them or achieve weak and hard-to-document effects.

Indeed, if non-academic goals—say, social or emotional development—are to be reached, they are likely to be reached as a result of the presence of appealing role models on campus and the way the institution itself is run and addresses challenges. If consistent modeling is ingrained in the culture of an institution, most students can be expected to live up to these high standards. To be sure, mental health and belonging issues may need to be specifically supported by trained professionals (either on or off campus).

Pleasing many masters. Even those leaders who realize that they cannot be all things to all people are reluctant to narrow their goals. The scholarly focus that we endorse places at-risk the loyalty and support of different constituents, ranging from parents and student applicants, to the varying agendas of alums, trustees, donors, and the wider society. Like politicians campaigning for office, campus leaders declare a wide range of promises, but know that once in office, these cannot really be achieved. (One could make the same criticism of those involved college admissions, but that is a topic for another day.)

And we have not even mentioned the securing of a good job, often foremost in the minds of what “the sector” has come to term the “customers.”

Confusion about the purpose of any institution. To be successful as an organization, workplace, or profession, it’s important to know one’s mission and to keep that mission sharply in focus. Mission sprawl can be fatal.

Of all the institutions in our society, (and here we have in mind American society), only our schools and colleges are expected to pick up all of the pieces that have not been assumed by other institutions—nuclear and extended family, religious institutions, civil society, community centers, the media, profit-making companies, and the like. And because (as a society) we are not able to orchestrate these various entities, we end up saddling our colleges with the challenge of leading young people from adolescence to adulthood.

It’s an assignment that no institution can achieve—and especially not one whose avowed mission should be a focus on the cultivation of the mind.

Intertwining Goals and Means

We hope to have made the case for the centrality of an academic agenda—what might historically have been dubbed the “University of Chicago” model. But we now want to allow that there may be a “happy medium” between a sole focus on academics, on the one hand, and mission sprawl, on the other hand. Having prioritized the academic mission, it should also be possible to carefully intertwine the academics with one additional mission for a campus.

Based on our own work over the last quarter century, we would propose—as an additional goal—the development of a strong ethical sense. Indeed, we have written extensively about the importance of “good work” and how educational institutions can help orient students toward that goal. But there are other viable missions—for example, civic, religious, spiritual, and communal. 

However—and this is a big reservation—we don’t favor an additional goal unless it is tied—indeed, integrated or intertwined—with the academic program. Rather than pulling students in a different direction, this additional mission should be encountered and embodied across the required curriculum. So, to be specific, if a school prioritizes the nurturing of ethical professionals, ethical issues should arise and be addressed in classes, be they literary, historical, psychological, or “hard science.” Or, by the same token, if a school stipulates the goal of nurturing good citizens, questions of citizenship should be encountered in literary works like An Enemy of the People, history classes on the French Revolution, economics or psychology classes that weigh the advantages of “opt in” vs “opt out” choices. Put differently, the academic and civic or ethical missions should reinforce one another, rather than pull in different directions.

Though each is worth a separate posting if not an article or book, we want to place a few additional issues on the table.

Challenges in Levels of Academic Development. Even if our general vision is accepted, a major challenge needs to be recognized. When they enter college, students may have quite different degrees of knowledge and skills with reference to the academic requirements—both in regard to specific topics and with respect to overall level of analytic and communicative skills. This fact has long been recognized. It was memorably summarized in William Perry’s model of intellectual development during the college years and has recently been poignantly described in Anthony Jack’s The Privileged Poor.

It would be highly optimistic, if not delusional, to believe that these differences can be washed away or eliminated over the college span. But the clear goal of college should be to increase the analytic and performance skills across the board, so that all students end up much stronger than they were at the time of matriculation (we now call this Higher Education Capital, or HEDCAP). Moreover, having moved in a positive direction, it should be possible for students to continue to enhance the key skills post-college, whether in a professional program, on the job, or in their leisure.

Campus life. Most of our work has centered on schools that require, or at least feature, residential life. A “24-7 experience,” in which students have the opportunity to learn from (and sometimes live with) peers and on-campus adults, constitutes a powerful treatment. Undoubtedly, engagement in campus life and residential life provides unique experiences—for example, bonding with peers from different backgrounds, learning about new interests as a result of student clubs and organizations, and taking responsibility for the community as a whole. But at the same time this treatment can work to reinforce the academic goals, it can also compete with them, or even, in the least happy occasion, undermine them.

In brief, campus life should enhance the academic experience, but not overshadow it. Far too often, students focus on social and extra-curricular objectives as a reason to go to college. However, the services and the resources on campus can institute powerful levers in one or another direction. And even more powerful, are the role models and exemplars on campus—professors, administrators, or those who provide services which many students may take for granted, but whose efforts should be acknowledged and, as appropriate, celebrated as well.

Vocational education. It’s fair to ask about the place of vocational education in the picture that we have sketched. We have no objection to schools that describe themselves as training individuals in business, marketing, journalism, pharmacy, or nursing. If they succeed in achieving their avowed goals, they have handled the mission challenge satisfactorily and perhaps enviably.

The question arises as to whether such a vocational school or program can also achieve the liberal arts goals that we have described. In the best instance, we believe that they can. Indeed, we cherish the memorable words of a senior at the Olin College of Engineering who said, “I am achieving the best of both worlds: a liberal arts education and an engineering degree.” But to embody the intertwined double helix of vocational training and liberal arts mind-opening is a formidable challenge.

Why now? In writing these words, for the most part, we believe that we are presenting ideas that are sensible, indeed non-controversial. And we acknowledge that we may be preaching to the choir; individuals who read this blog are likely to be in the field of education and to acknowledge, if not to endorse, the merits to what we are saying.

But we are also writing at a unique time in American (and perhaps world) history. For the first time, large portions of the population believe that higher education is not worth the money or, even more depressingly, that it is bad for the nation. Just why this is so is a complicated matter, one on which far wiser observers have amply commented.

At such times, institutions are tested as they have not been before. And higher education faces a clear choice: the sector can continue to claim, against the evidence and against plausibility, that it can repair the various fault lines in the society. Or it can reassert the major reason for its existence and strive to show that, in the present challenging climate, it can achieve what it was designed to achieve. If it fails, the whole sector is likely to be so fundamentally altered that the vision we’ve described will have disappeared—and perhaps for a very long time.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 2

April 1, 2019 - 9:31am

To Our Readers: After some reflection, we’ve decided to violate the “rules of the road” with respect to the preferred length of blogs, and we are releasing the second and third blogs in this series at the same time. As always, we welcome and learn from your comments, sent either as notes to us or posted here on the site.

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Beyond the Mellon Papers: Our Aspirations for an Education in The Liberal Arts

In the previous blog, we described the goals of an ongoing comprehensive study of education in the liberal arts as well as the challenges entailed in securing reliable evidence of progress in realizing these goals.

The Mellon papers illustrate in graphic detail that the term “liberal arts” can have many meanings. Liberal arts can foreground different kinds of institutionalization and implementation, for different purposes and with different possible results, immediately, in the short run, and in the longer run. How can one make sense of this lexical, vocational, and “deliverable” tangle?

Our reading of the Mellon papers has stimulated us to propose our own vision of an education in the liberal arts. Our vision can be stated succinctly, but its realization and justification requires considerable unpacking.

The principal purpose of a liberal arts education should be the achievement of academic and cognitive growth. Any other purpose needs to be deeply intertwined with these academic and cognitive priorities. By the conclusion of a four-year education in an institution that calls itself a liberal arts school, or that claims to infuse liberal arts significantly into a required curriculum, all graduates should have been exposed to a range of ways of thinking that scholars and other serious thinkers have developed over the decades, sometimes over centuries. Students should have ample practice in applying several ways of thinking; and they should be able to demonstrate, to a set of competent assessors, that they can analyze and apply these ways of thinking. Put specifically and succinctly, graduates should be able to read and critique literary, historical, and social scientific texts; exhibit mathematical, computational, and statistical analytic skills; and have significant practical “hands on” immersion in at least one scientific and one artistic area.

To be clear, this portrait of a liberal arts education is by no means novel; it is reflected in the curriculum developed at a range of institutions at the end of the 19th century, described in Harvard’s influential Red Book at the end of World War II; embodied in “gen ed” and “distribution” requirements at hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions; and foregrounded in the statements and documents of major organizations of higher education, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges, the COHFE and Ivy League schools, and analogous consortia.

Why is it important, indeed essential, once again to make the claim for the priority of the academic and cognitive enterprise? Our own seven-year study of a range of institutions documents that this priority is all too often honored in the breach, rather than in the observance. Majors and distribution requirements may persist, but the primary academic and cognitive purposes are rarely highlighted and, all too frequently, they are ignored altogether. Instead, as a sector, those of us in non-vocational institutions have gotten sidetracked, caught up in talking about developing students’ independence, self-realization, happiness, character, and ability to gain the knowledge and skills required for their chosen occupations (topics foregrounded in several of the Mellon papers). Of the 1000 students whom we interviewed at length on ten disparate campuses, depressingly few report the experience of exploring new topics and acquiring new ways of thinking as central to their college experience. It is because so many institutions of higher education have undergone “mission sprawl” that we now argue vociferously for getting back on track—staying “true” to the original intention of the liberal arts (and of the liberal arts and sciences).

Even if we re-embrace this classic goal, such a program raises many questions—about additional goals, diverse student bodies, and significant obstacles that individuals may not have faced at earlier times. In the third, final blog in this series, we address a congeries of these issues. We then offer our own suggestions about how best to reaffirm and realize the goals of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 1

March 25, 2019 - 8:58am

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

Background: The Mellon Papers

Thanks to the generosity of several funders, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, over the last seven years we have had the privilege of studying non-vocational higher education in the United States. We originally called our study “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century,” but, as a result of our 2000 interviews, we came to realize that the phrase “liberal arts and sciences” has little meaning for most constituents—and is often misunderstood. Still the phrase has considerable resonance within the higher education community. Indeed, as part of a recently undertaken much larger study of the sector, The Mellon Foundation commissioned several papers on the liberal arts, and these papers have now been posted here.

The papers, well worth reading, cover a range of topics: definitions of liberal arts (varied, needless to say); the history of liberal arts education in the United States (dating back to the seventeenth century); and the relationship between an education described as liberal arts and a survey of possible and desirable outcomes: vocational, financial, cognitive, social, civic, and artistic, both in the short run and over the course of a lifetime.

Perhaps not surprisingly—and appropriately, given that the wide-ranging Mellon study itself will unfold over the next several years—the papers raise provocative questions in lieu of providing reasonably definitive answers.

What do we know? Attending and completing college certainly raises one’s income over the course of a lifetime; the study of humanities is less lucrative (particularly in the short run) than the study of engineering, science, or the “hard” social sciences. Once one goes beyond financial payoff, however, patterns are difficult to discern. It’s hard to demonstrate—particularly to a skeptic—that a liberal arts education makes you smarter, a better thinker and communicator, a kinder, happier, more civic-minded person, or a more likely voter.

To reach firm conclusions, one must compare graduates of a liberal arts college to those who have graduated from a vocational or professionally oriented school, as well as those who went right to work after high school or who had some kind of a “gap” experience—ranging from a year to a decade or more. Such comparisons have a self-selection problem (with different kinds of students presumably choosing the respective route). Additionally, we don’t know whether desirable outcomes occur because of which individuals choose to go to college and which ones make it through to graduation, or because the “higher scorers” go to one kind of college rather than to another. Nor can we state with confidence whether positive outcomes occur in institutions that describe themselves as liberal arts, that require courses in the liberal arts, that mandate some sort of distribution requirement, and/or that showcase some other feature or combination of features. And of course it would be important to find out whether any documented outcomes persist—or perhaps emerge more powerfully—over a much longer period of time.

It’s a laudable goal of the much larger Mellon study to tease out which of these dispositions are causally related to completing a liberal arts education and which can be tied to certain programs at certain institutions or certain kinds of institutions. We hope that it will succeed! But even in this era of easily gathered and easily analyzed “big data,” it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll know in five years about the effects—or, less happily, the non-effects—of an education anchored in the liberal arts and sciences.

In the ensuing blogs, we present our own vision of a quality education in the liberal arts and address some of the challenges to this vision.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

The Mental Health Enigma: One Size Does Not Fit All (Part I)

March 11, 2019 - 11:24am

By Wendy Fischman

The state of mental health on college campuses has become a major topic of conversation. In recent months, media outlets ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Foreign Affairs have featured stories about how campuses have been inundated with reports of students’ personal problems.

When we began our study of higher education in 2012, we detected traces of concern from participants on our two pilot campuses; but soon thereafter, nearly every participant across the eight other schools—including students, faculty, administrators, parents and trustees—acknowledged a mental health problem. Indeed, the majority of individuals participating in our study indicated that mental health was the biggest problem on campus, and that was in comparison to other well-known problems, such as academic dishonesty, alcohol and substance abuse, peer relationships, and safety. Among students, our largest constituency, both mental health and safety—described as violence and sexual misconduct—are the overwhelming choices. In this and in succeeding blogs, I discuss our own preliminary findings about mental health in higher education.

By now, we are prepared to hear ample discussion of mental health on any campus that we visit. Indeed, we’d be surprised if we didn’t! However, we have also learned that the prevalence of mental health concerns across disparate campuses, with varying student populations of all kinds, needs closer examination.

To begin with, we might have expected to hear about more about stress and anxiety from first year students. After all, they are onboarding to college—and so they have to deal with academic pressure from an unfamiliar environment, the experience of attending large lectures with hundreds of other students, the challenge of forging social connections with peers.

Surprisingly, though, we find that an even greater percentage of graduating than first year students designate mental health as the biggest concern on campus. Moreover, the challenge occurs across the range of campuses. According to our data, mental health is an equally big concern whether students are on residential or non-residential campuses, and whether they attend highly selective or non-selective schools. When we began our study of higher education, we did not intend to be writing about mental health issues. But this is a topic that we can’t ignore, especially when it distracts students from engaging with academic and other aspects of campus life.

Although the concern about mental health, broadly speaking, is equally strong across various kinds of campuses, interesting and important differences are associated with the more and less selective schools, and residential vs. non-residential campuses. (And we note that in our study, more selective schools are residential; less selective schools are not; hence these factors are confounded.) These differences provide useful insight, while also complexifying the general issue. In unraveling the enigma of mental health issues across disparate college campuses, “one size does not fit all.”

  • Students encounter different problems.

As described by adults on campus, there are some discernible patterns in the kinds of problems students experience. Students at the more selective campuses tend to seek support for issues relating to maintaining a high standard of academic work, balancing academics with campus activities, and handling complicated peer relationships. The more selective institutions in our study (primarily residential), are often comprised of more affluent students, as well as more financial aid for those who are in need. In contrast, students at the less selective campuses tend to seek help to deal with traumatic family situations and balancing academic work with paid work. Their limited time on campus can prevent these students from connecting with peers.

These different causes of stress lead to different kinds of recommendations. At more selective campuses, mental health professionals believe that students need to develop more resilience when confronting academic imperfection and vulnerabilities exposed by relationships with peers and adults. Their counterparts at less selective schools report that the students that they see exhibit plenty of resilience, but need help developing meaningful relationships with others. Put differently: perhaps as a result of navigating traumatic situations and/or finding ways to make the financial ends meet, students at less selective schools can handle “imperfection” and “failure;” but they need to feel more comfortable confiding in and relying on others.

For students in both settings, living apart from parents is described as an important factor in mental health, but plays out in different ways. Students at more selective and residential campuses—those who may be accustomed to daily familial support—find that balancing personal needs (laundry, cooking, shopping) away from parents for the first time is stressful. But students at less selective and non-residential campuses—those who may not have not been raised by their own parents, or who are the first in their families to go to college—find the separation difficult in another way. According to one mental health director, “first gen” students have a hard time talking with parents who don’t have an understanding of the value of higher education, especially when not directly linked to a job or financial outcome that will support the family.

  • Students seek help (or don’t) in different ways.

According to mental health providers at the more selective schools, students tend to take the initiative in seeking help. At the less selective schools, fewer students go to the mental health center on their own. More often, students are referred to mental health services by faculty and student life administrators who observe suffering in some way.

There are a few possible reasons for these differences. First, the more selective campuses have stand alone, independent centers, with little to no connection to other departments on campus. They are labelled and recognized as such. At the less selective campuses, mental health services are more closely tied to other administrative and programmatic departments, such as academic advising, tutoring, and inclusion and diversity offices. Accordingly they may well be less distinctive. Second, on the whole, the less selective campuses are bigger campuses, those in which mental health services may not be as widely known. On smaller campuses, as the saying goes, “everyone knows everything.”

A third consideration: Knowledge about and connection to individuals who can help may be closely connected to the larger concept of belonging, whose three varieties are described in an earlier blog. If students feel a sense of belonging to academics, to peers, and/ or to the institution as a whole, the likelihood is high that they would have a faculty member or advisor, a friend, or awareness of centers on campus, where they might seek help. Those who feel alienated may not know to whom or where to turn. On an initial analysis, at the less selective schools in our sample it appears that higher percentages of students feel alienated from academics, peers, and/or the institution.

Regardless of size, type, or availability and accessibility of mental health services, students who tell us about seeking help complain that there are not enough services or counselors. Students lament long waits (weeks) to be seen or a limited number of sessions per academic year. In an earlier blog, we reflect on whether campuses should ramp up mental health services or help students become “hardier” by using techniques on their own—for example, those learned from cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • Mental health providers have different goals for students.

Though all mental health providers and directors clearly want to help students overcome personal issues, they tend to have different goals for students.

For those students at the more selective campuses who struggle with academic pressure, stress about jobs and careers, and/or problems from being overscheduled, mental health professionals hope that students will focus on these problems. But they also prompt students to investigate larger questions about their place in the world and how they might eventually contribute to a larger society. One mental health director states, “I would like [students] to leave with the sense that they are not the center of the universe.” In other words, the goal is for students to focus on contributing to a wider society, not just harping on their own personal challenges and achievements.

With respect to students at less selective campuses who come for help with trauma (losing a parent, fear of safety), the focus is on helping students become stable and productive—going to class, completing work, and staying in school.  As described earlier, these students tend to be more resilient based on what they have already gone through; but in the words of, one director, “when they fall apart, they fall apart.” The clinicians’ emphasis is clearly on helping individuals cope with the particular challenge being faced—learning humility or engaging in public service are left for another day.

In future writings, we expect to take a closer look at other topics relating to mental health: for example, particular words used by students to describe “mental health” challenges (even if they aren’t their own challenges); correlation of students’ preoccupation of mental health with other key concepts of our study, such as mental models, “higher education capital,” called HEDCAP (formerly LASCAP for liberal arts and sciences capital), and belonging; and the range of approaches to mental health carried out across schools in our study.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

Takeaways from an Esteemed Advocate of Liberal Arts Education

March 5, 2019 - 11:40am

by Howard Gardner

Julie Kidd is President of The Endeavor Foundation in New York City, a position she has held since 1975. As part of her Foundation work, Kidd has spent several decades supporting, developing, and advocating for liberal arts programs, within the United States and also abroad. We have known each other for many years—I believe that we first met at a conference in Cambridge on the liberal arts twenty-five years ago! Since then, The Endeavor Foundation (previously called The Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation) has generously supported much of our research, and Julie has become a valued adviser and friend.

After reading our “Takeaways” For College Presidents, Julie prepared her own very thoughtful list. She has generously given us permission to post her takeaways below. Wendy Fischman and I are preparing our own more recent thoughts about the purposes of higher education and will post them within the month. May this important conversation continue!

Julie’s Seven Takeaways:

1. Create a compulsory freshman course on the meaning and power of studying in the tradition of the liberal arts and sciences. This can be demonstrated in many concrete ways. Send a precis of the course to all parents of incoming freshmen.

2. Create a framework in which small groups of students study the same topics together across several courses and thus create a common frame of reference and compelling themes for discussion outside the classroom. This framework should include civic engagement experiences so that students apply their learning to real world situations while, at the same time, creating experiential bonds which work against feelings of disconnectedness and anomie.

3. Maintain a faculty student ratio which allows faculty to work closely with their students and to provide significant and meaningful, grounded mentorship.

4. Reward faculty for teaching first and scholarship second.

5. Redirect funds away from competitive athletics to athletics for health and well-being and to establish life-long practices of exercise.

6. Break up our large universities into small liberal arts colleges within the university so that small, personalized classes can be the norm and also so that a great deal of mentorship work can occur.

7. Have courage to challenge the norms and gain support for these approaches through continued bombardment of the public with appropriate information about what higher learning and the college experience should be.

Without these commitments, in my view, the college and university experiences today will not change or improve. The system needs transformation, not little changes around the edges, though those are better than none at all. Change around the edges, however, can cause a false sense of complacency, which undermines transformational change.


Categories: Blog

Steps Toward Free Speech on Campus

February 25, 2019 - 10:57am

When we began our study of higher education seven years ago, we had clear expectations about what we would hear from various constituencies. Our predictions were frequently off the mark. We had expected to hear a lot about political disputes on campus, but in fact, across constituencies, we heard much more about personal problems: student feelings that they did not belong, and student reports of depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.

Why such a cloudy crystal ball? Here’s one analysis. Over the last several years, notable political disputes have garnered headlines in the written and broadcast media. For anyone who follows life on American campuses, the mere mention of a college can activate a predictable set of associations:

Indeed, it is the fortunate campus that has not garnered such headlines in the last few years.

We do not know whether, if our study were repeated or were longitudinal, we would encounter more mentions on campus of these “hot wire” political issues. Or whether, alternatively, such episodes are of interest chiefly to the media, ever eager for dramatic stories, or for administrators or trustees whose most fervent wish is to remain off the front page.

On reflection, I’ve reached some tentative conclusions. Actual controversies about specific speakers are not that common; as documented by Sanford Ungar, who tracks free speech issues, campus clashes are restricted to a small number of provocative speakers, almost all politically conservative. If you invite Anne Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer to campus, you can expect vocal protests; and if they actually make it to campus, they will require protections with the attendant expenses. There appear to be no left-wing speakers who are equally controversial, but certainly a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins would cause perturbations at a religious campus.

A political issue of a different flavor concerns me. This “free speech” issue concerns the amount of self-censoring by students, teachers, and administrators; the reasons for such self-censoring; and whether that self-censoring is important and needed, or problematic and ripe for confrontation. Here’s where one encounters arguments about “safe spaces,” political correctness, trigger warnings, and other efforts to lower the political, social, and cultural heat before it has a chance to move the campus thermometer in a risky direction. I teach at a professional school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where such self-censoring is a live issue—one predictably discussed more in hushed terms than on public platforms.

In his book Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, law professor-turned-school leader John Palfrey lays out the arguments pertaining to both facets of the title. He explains the importance of free speech, particularly in the American context (the United States has the strongest laws protecting free speech anywhere in the world). Palfrey also reviews the reasons why many individuals, particularly from certain historically disadvantaged groups, feel that they have been the victims of free speech norms, and accordingly favor various kinds of interventions which make them feel safe. This situation has only been aggravated by social media outlets, like Yik Yak (now deceased) or lurid posts on Reddit, which allow anonymous hate speech presumptively under the cloak of the first amendment to the Constitution. On this “safe space” line of argument, there are valid reasons for creating safe spaces of various sorts on a campus.

It would be more than presumptuous of me to come down hard on either side of this debate—I respect John Palfrey’s moderate, even-handed stance.

That said, I put forth here a proposal that seems sensible for colleges and universities—and especially for those institutions that are not purely vocational, those institutions that we should expect to draw on the terminology, the concepts, and the traditions of the liberal arts and sciences when controversial issues arise.

When admitted, students should be informed about what it means to be a student in that particular community of learning. Aspirations for free, unfettered communication—even, perhaps especially, on controversial issues—should be the goal. But if that is the goal, one needs to have clear examples of how such discussions should take place: what it means to disagree strongly without being disagreeable or worse. And equally, one needs specific examples of speech acts, language, debating tacks that are counterproductive—and why such expressions and tactics should accordingly be discouraged or, in extreme cases, sanctioned.

An example: The arguments put forth by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve are certainly controversial; but it is possible to discuss the issues civilly. Indeed, over the years, I have done so both in person and on the radio with Charles Murray.

I propose two ordered steps:

  1. Campus Consensus

The leaders of the community (senior administrators, faculty, trustees) must themselves agree on the norms of the community. This is not easy to do, needless to say—and especially challenging when the population is large and diverse! Indeed, when such agreement had not been achieved at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2016, the results were counterproductive—students and others heard contradictory messages. Those with the biggest stake in the institution must take whatever steps are needed to bring about a viable consensus, which can then be shared—publicly—with the wider community.

  1. Onboarding of New Students (and others, which would include new faculty, as well as transfer students).

The school must devote as much time and effort as necessary to familiarizing students with the norms of communication and discussion with respect to controversial issues, the reasons for them, and the consequences if these norms are undermined. In recent years, such efforts have been undertaken with respect to plagiarism, a much more pervasive problem since the advent of the Internet, and with respect to sexual misdeeds, a perennial problem, though one whose frequency across time is difficult to estimate.

These forms of onboarding are obviously important; the nature and the specifications of the norms of discussion and discourse about important topics are at least as important. They are absolutely central to the purposes of a college or university—over time and in any democratic society. And they are most likely to come up in courses in the humanities and the softer social sciences—particularly those disciplines that are in jeopardy nowadays.

Along with other societies around the globe, contemporary American society is challenged today on these very issues. If our future leaders and our future citizens are to have disagreements without being intimidated or resorting to disruption, we had better lay the groundwork during undergraduate years—if not sooner.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

Gardner Named to Top 30 Management Professionals

February 22, 2019 - 1:25pm

Howard Gardner has been named #18 on a 2019 ranking of the top 30 management professionals.

The annual list from Global Gurus compiles the profiles of influential and inspirational leaders and speakers in management theory and strategy. 

To learn more about this ranking, and to see the full list visit the Global Gurus website here. Congratulations to all those named!

Categories: Blog

Longing to Belong: An Important Issue for Higher Education

February 14, 2019 - 1:08pm

by Wendy Fischman

In higher education, the context can shift quickly. When we began our national study in 2012, higher education seemed to be highly valued (funding for Pell grants nearly doubled), MOOCs were on the rise, and “liberal arts” as a form of education was admired and emulated in many parts of the world. In fact, we originally named our study “Liberal Arts and Sciences for the 21st Century.” Now, seven years later, after ascertaining that “liberal arts” is not widely understood in the United States, we use a more neutral title: “Higher Education in the 21st Century.”

Of course, we had concerns about higher education—otherwise we would not have undertaken 2000 interviews with it major stakeholders, including incoming students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, trustees, and young alums. As consumers of the national media, we were prepared to hear about the escalating costs of higher education, and also about incidents of racial, sexual, or political conflict on campus. But as we carried out our interviews, we came to see that issues of “mental health” and “belonging” loom large for every constituency and on every campus; they seem to be the biggest struggles students confront, impacting both academic experiences and other features of college life.

In our efforts to gain deeper insights into issues of belonging, our research team devised a coding scheme. We parsed the concept of “belonging” into three separate categories:

1) Academic: mastery and ownership of course content/major/scholarly work;

2) Peer: meaningful connections with other students; and

3) Institutional: identification with mission and spirit of the campus.

These categories help us to understand whether these forms of belonging correlate with one another (positively or negatively) and whether they differ across majors, gender, kinds of campuses, and other independent variables. We also wanted to see whether we would find patterns across constituency groups—for example, incoming students and graduating students, and across the ten disparate schools participating in the study. Accordingly, we designated several questions about belonging (and non-belonging) that can be grouped into three categories: 1) overall sample; 2) types of schools; and 3) correlations with other concepts and constructs in our study.

1) Overall Sample: How does belonging (in each of the three areas) for first year students compare to belonging for graduating students? How does belonging for male students compare to female students? How does belonging compare for students in the humanities, natural sciences, or social sciences?

2) School Type: How does belonging (in each of the three areas) for students at small schools compare with students at large schools? How does belonging for students at residential campuses compare to students at campuses that are primarily for commuters? And how does belonging for students at more selective institutions compare to students at less selective institutions?

3) Correlations with Other Concepts: What is the relationship of belonging (in each of the three areas) to the mental models that we have delineated—do “transactional” students have more or less belonging than “transformational” students? What is the relationship of belonging to “higher education capital” (HEDCAP), formerly referred to as “liberal arts and sciences capital” (LASCAP)—another major concept of our study? Do students with higher HEDCAP scores have more or less belonging than students with lower HEDCAP scores?

So far, an initial finding has surprised us: for all three belonging categories, the overall percentage of students who describe a sense of belonging “decreases” between the group of first year students and the group of graduating students.

At first glimpse, the finding seems counter-intuitive. That is, why do graduating students who have been enrolled for 4-6 years (or 2-3 years in the case of community college students) tend to feel less connected to academics, peers, and the institution than do their first year counterparts? And, why is it that graduating students tend to feel more alienated than those who have just arrived on campus? 

There may be several explanations—for example, the kinds of orientation programs and residential requirements of a particular campus. Pursuing this example, before school begins, some institutions offer opportunities for incoming students to bond with peers and faculty in service activities or on camping trips. At least one of the schools participating in our study added a residential requirement for sophomores in order to facilitate deeper connections among peers. As a contrast, perhaps graduating students have the proverbial “foot out the door” and are ready to “move on.”

We suggest another possibility. Over the course of college, as students further identify their own interests and passions, get to know their peers in deeper ways, and experience campus life in its fullness, they come to realize that they have different values from other students, and possibly as well from their faculty and administrators. In other words, they really “don’t belong” on their campus. It is also possible that initially, in the first year of college, some students simply assume that others are like them, due to superficial traits, and later find that this is not true.

One such example is a student I’ll call Alex.

Alex is a graduating student at a selective college, a double major in literature and neuroscience. He comes from a rural area in the United States, where he graduated from a high school without having received useful advice about the college experience. Half the students from his graduating high school class went to college, while many of the others went into the military. Of those who went to college, he estimates that half went to a community college. He came to college with the belief that “[college is] important [because] searching for knowledge is the number one goal in life, and this is just like the most noble thing you could do…”

But, over time, Alex finds that his “noble” ambitions are at odds with those of other students. He says, “Everyone here has pretty much the same goals… the same career goals of just making a lot of money.” Specifically, he reports that within the neuroscience department, “I’m the only person I know…that’s not trying to go to med[ical] school. Everyone is very pre-med or just pre-tech, pre-finance, very career oriented and genuinely don’t care that much about the major that they’re doing a lot of the time…”

Alex also faults administrators for a focus on lucrative careers, rather than for emphasizing the humanities. As he explains, on-campus adults encourage students to attend career fairs and to network because they will make “connections for life” and that through these experiences, connections will be “set in stone forever.”

On the cusp of graduation, Alex reflects: “I wish somebody had told me more about [this] when I came in…[I] generally bec[ame] disillusioned over time with how and why people come into college, and how they deal with their classes, and why they take their classes, and what their career goals are, and realizing that so few people, especially here, are interested academically in what they’re doing in any way.”

In our terms, Alex’s “mental model” for college is “misaligned” with the models of those around him, particularly students and administrators. He approaches college with an “exploratory” mindset—that college is an opportunity to immerse in different fields and “search for knowledge.” This mindset comes into direct opposition with the “transactional” mode, in which the goal of college is to get a degree and meet people in order to build a resume for a future job or career. In a nutshell, Alex feels alienated from the academic realm, peers around him, and overall institution in which he attends.

Though we certainly don’t want to advocate for feelings of alienation or loneliness per se among students, it is clear that Alex “found himself” through the college experience. This form of discovery is evident in his articulation of the great distance between his own goals and the ambitions and motivations of many others on campus. Though he may be “dismayed” by his experience, he stayed true to his values, rather than compromising on these values in order to “fit in.”  

Interestingly, though we were not prepared for “belonging” to emerge as one of the most pressing issues on campus, the topic may well be tied, in some ways or in some circumstances, to finances, “ROI,” and jobs—concerns we had thought would dominate our interviews. Perhaps the issues of “ROI” and “belonging” are not as distant from each other as we might initially have believed.

For their useful comments, we thank Shelby Clark, Kirsten McHugh, and Katie Steele.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

2019 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings

February 5, 2019 - 11:44am

Howard Gardner has been rated the third most influential education thinker according to a 2019 ranking.

The annual RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, released by Rick Hess in Education Week, is a list of American university-based scholars who are shaping educational policy and practice. The ranking is based on factors such as Google Scholar and Amazon rankings, as well as press and web mentions.

Once again, Gardner has placed in the top three education scholars, after having come in second in 2018. Rounding out this year’s top five are Carol Dweck, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Jo Boaler.

Click here to read the release in full.

Categories: Blog

Six Fault Lines in Higher Education

January 30, 2019 - 11:52am

In early January 2019, I gave the first public presentations on our seven year study of higher education in the United States: two talks (with Senior Project Manager Wendy Fischman) at the Council of Independent Colleges; and three talks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (titled, informally and respectively, “What We Did”; “What We Found”; and “What It Means”). These presentations were clearly defined as “interim reports.” Our data analyses remain very much “in process”—no conclusions engraved in stone. As with other blogs in this series, we were trotting out our tentative findings and hoping to secure feedback from supportive but critical friends.

Our study has definitely lost its virginity. The presentations gave us a chance to hear what we sound like and also to solicit valuable feedback. As a result, we discovered several “fault lines” in our thinking—areas that deserve further consideration.

1. The “News Sources” on which We Relied

As we began our research several years ago, our research group was surprised by two initial findings: first, the universal reporting of mental health issues across diverse campuses. Second, the frequent laments by students that they felt they did not “belong.”

In one sense this surprise was justifiable: neither issue had received much attention in the press (at that time). But this blind spot may also be traceable in part to the background and knowledge base of our research team. It is quite possible that if we had a more diverse research team, representing several demographies, we might have been more attuned to the pressures that students are currently facing. Also, of course, the situation in 2012-2013 (the middle of the Obama presidency) may be quite different from that in 2018-2019 (the middle of the Trump presidency). What was surprising close to a decade ago, when the study was initially conceived, might be less surprising today.

2. Our Research Team

We are part of Harvard Project Zero, a long-standing research group at the Graduate School of Education. Research teams are staffed partially by masters and doctoral students (or graduates) from the school, and partially by recent graduates of college or graduate school who apply for openly advertised positions. Within the pool of applicants, we look for individuals with interest in higher education and with the abilities to carry out interviews, analyze them, participate in discussion of details as well as the big pictures that are emerging. We have had wonderful researchers on our team, and they represent different generations of college students; but as noted, a more diverse team might have been sensitive to issues and themes that eluded us.

3. Easy Assumptions about a Core Concept—Mental Models of College

As individuals who are convinced of the importance of a broad education in the liberal arts tradition, we have made certain assumptions. For example, in considering mental models of higher education, we have cheered when students (or others) embrace models that are “exploratory” or “transformative.” And in turn, we were concerned about the high incidence of “transactional” and the occasional “inertial” models of higher education.

In discussing our findings, we now realize that transactional models should not be lightly dismissed. For certain students, under certain circumstances, transactional models—”I need this degree if I am to have any chance to get a decent job”—are quite reasonable; and equally, for some students, transactional may be a necessary step en route to a more capacious view of the possibilities of college.

4. A More Nuanced View of Other Organizing Concepts

Having adopted the concepts of “alignment” and “misalignment” from our earlier study of work in the professions, we assumed that schools should seek alignment among various constituencies wherever possible and, accordingly, should spurn misalignments as antithetical to the achievement of a school mission.

We now acknowledge that alignments are not always possible; and that sometimes it may be necessary or even healthy to have misalignments—and to permit such misalignments to maintain a healthy tension on campus. For example, it is understandable that students and their parents may be occupied with securing a decent job, while faculty may underscore the importance of disciplinary study and of inculcating certain forms of thinking and writing. It may be unnecessary—and perhaps even counter-productive—to seek to erase these non-alignments. Perhaps, instead, one should allow this tension to persist and seek to broaden the perspectives of others. (The analogy to having two strong political parties—one more liberal, the other more conservative—may be apt.)

Following our presentations, we heard considerable discussion of the four mental models of college and much less discussion of our concept of “higher ed capital.” This difference may simply have reflected the interests of our audiences; but it is also possible that “higher ed capital” is simply assumed by those in a liberal arts setting, while considered out of reach by those located in a primarily vocational setting.

We were asked whether “higher ed capital” is simply a synonym of critical thinking. “Not as usually defined,” is our response. “Higher ed capital” is a broader concept, encompassing careful listening, ability to engage in conversation, interrogating questions that one has been asked, raising questions on one’s own, and noticing patterns and contradictions both in the questions raised and in the consequent discussion. Of course, if one wants to define critical thinking broadly, then the two concepts are much closer—though the current ways used to measure the constructs remain distinctive.

5. Alternative Views of Solutions to Three Campus Challenges

With respect to mental health, we have assumed that campuses should add as many specialists as possible and make sure that students have maximal access to them.

But it is possible to adopt a more skeptical stance. Perhaps colleges should scrutinize more carefully the mental health records of those who they have admitted or even those whom they consider admitting. Perhaps all students should have to take a gap year and perhaps that year should involve community service and not just a grand tour of the Greek islands. Perhaps words like “mental health” and “stress” and “anxiety” have become so familiar that they are invoked without genuine needs. Or perhaps students should be asked to read about how to solve problems themselves (for example, through applying insights from cognitive behavioral therapy) or be reminded that “we all have bad days.”

With respect to belonging, we would never endorse alienation for its own sake. But sometimes, it is appropriate to feel that one does not belong, and perhaps one needs to take dramatic steps—not simply “adjusting”—in order to alter that situation. There are legitimate reasons for feeling alienated. Consider the “angry young men” of the 1950s—who were skeptical about the “one right way” to look and to comport oneself—or the widespread college student unrest in the 1960s in the United States and abroad in reaction to the deceptive and sometimes disastrous foreign policies of the United States. The messages in Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty are well worth pondering. Sometimes one needs to stand up with one’s voice against something that feels wrong (such as racism or sexism), and, if it cannot be changed, then exit.

In addition, a key finding of our study is the extent to which diversity on campus is recognized and lauded. Of course “diversity” can have quite different meanings to different individuals, and we are probing both the diverse (!) connotations of diversity, as well as possible synonyms, like the frequently heard adjective “quirky.”

But when it comes to how best to navigate diversity, consensus evaporates. Recommendations range from giving students many opportunities—both formal and informal—to associate with those from similar backgrounds and demographies; to creating rooming arrangements, required courses, and section arrangements which deliberately cut across these diverse backgrounds; to an effort to provide opportunities for both “bonding capital” and “bridging capital.” Many of the fault lines on campuses today, and among the broader public, center on the tensions between helping students to feel part of groups and experiences to which they have a natural affinity, or rather encouraging students to cross over into unfamiliar classmates, backgrounds, and points of view.

6. And What to Call our Study?

Last but not least, we began the study with a deep commitment to the liberal arts and sciences; and to confirm that commitment, we initially named the study “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century”—LAS21 for short.

From our over 2000 formal interviews, and many informal conversations across diverse campuses and constituencies, one thing has become clear: most individuals involved in higher education are not able to define the phrase “liberal arts” with any confidence, and many have little notion of the standard definitions—instead focusing on political liberalism or on “anything goes.”

And so, we have the following options with respect to the phrase “liberal arts and sciences”: shout it, whisper it, give it a decent burial, or ban it.

We expect to return to these and related issues in the months ahead.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

First Steps Toward Going Public: Our Study at the Start of 2019

January 10, 2019 - 1:50pm

by Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman

So here we are, right at the edge of going public. It’s been nearly seven years since, with our esteemed colleague Richard Light, we conceived of a major—arguably the major—qualitative study of higher education in the United States in our time. From 2012-2018, with the support of a remarkably gifted and hard working staff, we carried out semi-structured hour-long interviews of over 2000 individuals spread over 10 deliberately disparate campuses. We sampled from 8 different constituencies: on each campus 50 freshmen, 50 graduating students, and a smaller but still substantial number of faculty, senior administrators, trustees, parents, young alums, and job recruiters (though the latter were not seen on the 10 individual campuses). All of these interviews were recorded; we have each read through all of the transcripts; and between us, we probably did 500 interviews in person, some solo, some as a pair.

Importantly, most of the interviews we carried out, with the exception of students, parents, and young alums (which were typically done by Skype), were typically done on campus, usually by a pair of trained interviewers. On those campus visits, the 3, 4, or 5 members of the team who had made the trip would meet twice a day, typically over a drink or a meal, and talk about general impressions, and what we had learned, what we remained curious or uncertain about. These conversations were important because we often learned information about the campus which the rest of the team did not know, and sometimes these tidbits resulted in additional interviews, observations, photos, even an additional trip. Necessarily, we also drew comparisons across campuses: “Campus X seems much more troubled than we had anticipated”; or “This is the first campus where we have seen deliberately diverse groups ‘hanging’ together or studying together.”

Within the research group, all of the members of which have taken an oath of silence, so to speak, we developed more general ideas about the several campuses, and, indeed, we also generated pretty strong expectations about the overall study. For example, mental health emerged early as a much larger issue across campuses than we had anticipated. Also, when it became clear that thoughts about the arts, or thoughts about ethical dilemmas, rarely came up spontaneously, we added suitable open-ended questions to the latter part of the questionnaire.

We had begun the study with a clear interest in the “liberal arts and sciences” and, for short, dubbed our study “LAS21”—for “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century.” But as we quickly learned through our interviews, too many individuals either do not know the phrase “liberal arts” altogether; or they misinterpret it as meaning “anything goes” or “courses that tilt toward left wing instructors and topics.” Accordingly, going forward, we will use a more neutral label for the study—such as “Higher Education in the 21st Century”; and for our concept of “LAS Capital” (a phrase we love for its Marxist economic and literary connotations), we have now substituted the innocuous (though still whimsical) HED (Higher Ed) Capital.

In our work, we have sought to follow the researchers’ code: we have been prudent about keeping silent about both our impressions of individual campuses—which we will never speak publicly or write about—and our suspected findings. And so we have only mentioned publicly, or to close colleagues, conclusions that are quite clear (e.g. the aforementioned prevalence of mental health issues or the ignorance about the meaning of the phrase “liberal arts”).

Finally, in the summer of 2018, our data collection was complete. We heaved a huge sigh of relief—not least because, while there were numerous small snafus, the study itself was never compromised. No campus ever withdrew or even complained! We owe enormous thanks to our entire staff, who have been steadfast in their dedication and their silence. They set a very high bar for the field!

During the latter years of the study (starting in year 4), we began to analyze our data. Some questions and observations were easily scored, even by those without any statistical training. These questions were either direct items in the interview (e.g. “What book would you recommend to a graduating student?”) or the two rank-order questions we asked (about problems prevalent on campus and about the principal purpose of college). But we also wanted as well to carry out statistical tests en route, and to see whether and to what extent various concepts, responses, and words and phrases correlate (or not). John Hansen and Reid Higginson, excellent statisticians, helped us launch the study, and now Shelby Clark, a postdoctoral fellow at Project Zero, is taking the statistical lead. We will be poring over the qualitative and quantitative data in the coming months (and years). Shortly, readers will begin to see our findings emerge in writing (for example, further blogs in this series), while audience members will encounter them in formal and informal talks.

Hitherto, neither of us had personally worked with so-called “big data.” We were fortunate that, under John Hansen’s leadership, we dipped our toe in this area, looking at the occurrence and frequency of over 100 words across all of the student transcripts (at the time, well over 500 freshmen and seniors). As we studied reports each week, we wondered whether we were using time wisely because we were not seeing any remarkable differences across campuses or constituencies. But then we realized that this very “non-finding” was actually a fascinating finding. And so, under the guidance of Shelby Clark, we approached “big data” in another way. No longer did we use a “top-down” method in which we explored the usage of specific words that we identified (as interesting or important). Instead we used a “bottom-up” approach, looking for the words that are most common for students across schools. Of the top 100 words, we find that still, for all intents and purposes, students across class status and across campuses use the same words. Put more concretely, whether you are a senior at a selective school or a less selective school, we cannot find major systematic differences in the individual words that you use. It appears that age (or stage in life) trumps the kind of campus students find themselves on.

Usually social scientists are disappointed by a null finding. But in this case, we were very pleased. For this finding, which seems robust so far, means that differences in higher level coding (e.g. level of sophistication of the reasoning) is not a reflection of the level of sophistication of vocabulary. It may well be that differences do exist if one looks at broader swathes of text—that’s an assignment that we will undertake as time and resources allow.

In the coming months, two important milestones in our project will be reached:

  • For the first time, we are giving public accounts of what we did and what we think it means. In early January 2019, we spoke to more than 300 college presidents at the annual meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) in Scottsdale. In addition, Howard gave three lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Importantly, those and other imminent lectures will NOT be streamed or published—because we are still not certain which findings are definitive and which ones will have to be modified or even scuttled. However, in the previous blog in this series, we reported the seven “takeaways” that we presented to the college presidents of the CIC.
  • Once we are certain about specific findings, we will report them in this blog. We will also begin to outline one or more books in which we report our findings. In truth, we could easily outline a dozen books and several dozen articles, either technical or for the general public. For example, we could just write one book alone about the uses of the single word “diversity” across constituencies and campuses. We will face the choice of what to emphasize, for particular audiences, and which results and recommendations to highlight, or to save for another occasion.

Stay tuned!

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

“Takeaways” for College Presidents

January 9, 2019 - 8:56am

As we enter 2019, our national study of higher education is in its 7th year! During these years, my colleagues and I have often been asked to speak publicly about our findings. But as long as we were still collecting data, this was not possible; and even after data collection has now been completed, we still have much data analysis to carry out.

For several years, the leaders of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC)—a consortium of several hundred small private institutions of higher education—have asked me to talk about our study. As we completed the study, I agreed to speak to their annual “Presidents’ Conference,” in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January of this year. I thought that this would be an apt audience for a set of “maiden presentations” by Senior Project Manager Wendy Fischman and me.

Some weeks before the conference, Wendy and I touched bases with Rich Ekman, the President of CIC, and Hal Hartley, the Senior Vice President. The four of us wanted to increase the likelihood that we were on the proverbial “same page” with reference to our presentations. We learned that the presidents were very busy, did not have much time to read and reflect, and were especially appreciative of “takeaways.”

Though I certainly understand the plight of these often harried leaders, I don’t usually do “takeaways”—and I was not at all sure that our study was ready for a small set of succinct conclusions and recommendations. But after some reflection and discussion with my colleagues, I decided that I would attempt to fulfill my hosts’ request. (For an article from Inside Higher Ed about the convening, click here.)

And so here, with appropriate drum roll, are the seven messages that several hundred college leaders could take home with them from the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale:

1. Not that Different from One Another

Surprisingly, most colleges are much more similar to one another than one might have thought. They confront the same issues. And the differences within and across colleges are, not infrequently, other than one might have predicted. For example, in the course of an hour-long interview, students in a wide variety of colleges used the same words, the same language.

But sometimes, they seem to mean different things by the same word (e.g. “diverse” can refer to students from different cultural backgrounds or to students who favor different activities); and sometimes they may use different words (e.g. “diverse” and “quirky”) to mean the same thing.

More troublingly, mental health challenges and feelings of alienation cut across colleges large and small, public and private, highly selective and less selective.

2. A Mission Known and Understood by All

Formulate and know your school’s mission, enunciate it, make sure that everyone else knows and understands it, including trustees and those who give campus tours. (We saw examples to the contrary—for instance, campus guides poking fun at the liberal arts mission of the school.) In my opinion, the mission should be fundamentally academic, unless the school is avowedly vocational.

If there are libraries, museums, and faculty—and of course there should be!—these should be integral to the mission. There can be a secondary mission—personally I endorse a civic mission or a religious mission—but that mission should be addressed academically and not on a high stakes athletic field.

Alas, students rarely mention these academic essentials. But, put bluntly, if we just want to have athletics, or clubs, or a gathering place for students, we don’t need to have faculty, libraries, or museums.

3. Flexibility with Respect to the Curriculum

Within the academic mission, there is much flexibility. When asked what changes they would make in the school’s curriculum, very few students have specific, workable ideas. At most, they gripe about too many “gen ed” requirements. Precisely because students are not curricular designers, this situation gives faculty and administrators a great deal of flexibility in the creation and curation of curriculum. Working with faculty who are willing and able, leaders should take advantage of that opportunity.

My own curricular recipe? That’s a topic best elaborated upon on another occasion. But I personally believe that all college students should have the opportunity to ponder big philosophical questions (ranging from the nature of truth to the meaning of a good life) and to understand the operation of the various systems of communication (spanning ordinary language to abstruse computer codes) that human beings have developed. Not only are those topics crucial for an understanding of our human world, in its constant and in its rapidly changing guises; but these intellectual topics are most easily broached in the later years of adolescence… or thereafter.

4. Identify the Misalignments and Strive for Better Alignment, But Avoid “Projectitis”

A crucial concept in our study is that of alignment/misalignment. Because over the course of our study we spoke at length to eight different constituencies across ten distinctly different campuses, we have a striking amount of data about agreements/alignments and disagreements/misalignments in American higher education. As an example of alignment, issues of belonging loom large across campuses. As an example of misalignment, constituencies within and across campuses differ strikingly on whether colleges should teach practical and/or vocational skills.

Leaders: Identify the misalignments on your campus and look for ways to bring about better alignment. (The “ALPS” cases that we have collected over the last seven years achieve better alignment. For sample ALPS cases, please see blogs on this site here, here, and here, and, of course, future blogs and publications as well.)

When a misalignment has been identified, address it if you can. Sample programs on other campuses can be helpful—and we believe that our ALPS cases will be suggestive.

However, don’t just create a new program or a new project. As we have dubbed it, “projectitis” almost never works. Indeed, when multiple programs are launched, the various constituencies are prone to roll their eyes and conclude “this too shall pass.” Only launch a program if it has been well-researched and promises to address a genuine need. Also, think carefully about future sources of funding. Externally-funded aligning programs need to be able to continue, assuming that they are working, after the external funding disappears.

The graveyards of colleges and universities are filled with projects that did not have staying power.

5. Invest in People, not Primarily in Buildings

We found a surprising consensus among students: invest in effective teaching, in relevant, pointed advising, and in timely and sensitive personal support—helping students cope with their mental health challenges and feelings of alienation and anomie. And if technology does not demonstrably support the mission, “junk it.”

Of course, for a college president, this takeaway may pose challenges. And that’s because many individuals of means would prefer to pay for rooms, halls, wings, or even entire buildings—especially if a monetary investment provides a naming opportunity. But rather than throw in the fund-raising towel, effective leaders need to educate their trustees about what is genuinely needed and genuinely useful. And indeed, the satisfaction of helping a student, or a cohort of students, to navigate the personal and academic challenges of college can be great. And perhaps someone who has been helped by a generous donor will one day name his or her child after the benefactor!… a new and meaningful kind of “naming opportunity”!

6. Maintain the Ethos of the “Liberal Arts and Sciences,” but Don’t Dwell on the Phrase—It’s Not Understood

My colleagues and I began our study with an unabashed admiration for traditional liberal arts. But we learned that many, perhaps most respondents, cannot define liberal arts at all, or define it erroneously (e.g. “politically on the left” or “anything goes”).

In the 21st century, only a few schools will remain faithful to a relatively pure focus on the liberal arts and sciences, perhaps the Ivies, perhaps the aspiring Ivies, perhaps the occasional St. John’s or Bard.

And of course, there will be a proliferation of colleges that are in effect vocational training centers—whether so named or not.

I believe that the most promising formula for 21st century higher education was identified by a graduating student at the Massachusetts-based Olin College of Engineering. As the student put it, “I’m getting the best of both worlds, a liberal arts education and an engineering degree.” I am sufficiently familiar with Olin College to believe that the student is on to something important. But I also know that the situation at Olin is unusual (small classes, modest tuition, a brilliant and innovative founding president) and not readily replicated. But if quality higher education is to survive in our nation—and perhaps if it is to survive globally—an auspicious blend of liberal arts and vocational training may be the most likely blend.

A lot depends on what is meant by “vocation.” We believe the term should be broadly defined. In our study, we pose this question to students who rate “getting a job” highly: “And what will happen if the job disappears in three years?” Needless to say, there is an enormous difference between students who throw up their hands in despair (“I guess I wasted four years and over $100,000.00 dollars”); those who reply that they are using college to learn about a broad sector (e.g. economics majors learning about finance; biology or nursing majors learning about health) and/or about a stance (e.g. English majors who seek to master effective communication; political science majors who want to focus on conflict resolution); and those who expect to be able to draw on that learning in multifarious ways—some predictable, others less so.

Which brings me to the seventh takeaway—hopefully an inspiring one:

7. College Presidents: Monitor Your Mission and Guide It Forward

If you:

  • succeed in articulating a viable mission;
  • with the appropriate personnel and guidelines;
  • can show that you are moving in the right direction (convincing skeptics as well as true believers);
  • and that others on campus are sharing and embodying your vision:

You will have earned a College President Medal of Honor.

Categories: Blog

Video: Multiple Intelligences Lecture in Brazil

January 2, 2019 - 11:36am

In August 2018, Howard Gardner traveled to Brazil as part of a trip through South America. While visiting the country, he delivered a lecture about the theory of multiple intelligences to an audience at the Congresso Socioemocional educational conference, hosted by the Laboratorio inteligencia de vida.

A video recording of Gardner’s talk is now available via YouTube, with subtitles in Portuguese. Watch the session below!

Categories: Blog

Gardner’s International Work in Education

December 17, 2018 - 11:44am

A recent inquiry to Howard Gardner prompted him to take a look at the international dimensions and impact of his work.

Gardner has worked on many different international issues—some alone, some with colleagues, and many of them with colleagues at Harvard Project Zero (of which he was a founding member fifty years ago).

Below, these issues are divided into three categories. Where appropriate, countries or regions have been noted; and, where possible, contact information has been provided.


As a scholar and researcher for five decades, a lot of Gardner’s influence abroad has occurred through books and translations. His published books, many of which are primarily focused on education, have received wide circulation and been translated into thirty languages. Gardner has also written almost 500 scholarly articles, many of them translated. (All of his publications and translations can be seen on his CV.)

In recent years, Gardner has written several dozen blogs. These are available via The Good Project under the heading The Professional Ethicist); on this site under the heading Life-Long Learning; and at his official MI theory website Multiple Intelligences Oasis.

Notable among Gardner’s books are several originally published in Danish, Turkish, French, and Chinese. His book To Open Minds was subtitled “Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of American Education.” While the book has not been translated officially into Chinese, Gardner spent much time in China in the 1980s—studying Chinese arts education—and became a very well-known educator there. He also co-edited a journal on Arts Education in China (1989). There are several dozen books about Gardner’s work available in Chinese. A knowledgeable contact is Shen Zhilong, who has written the 2018 Chinese-language volume, which is titled in English as Howard Gardner & His Educational Ideas.


Multiple Intelligences

The ideas and practices of Gardner’s that have had the most influence on a global scale are those that have grown out of his work on multiple intelligences. Indeed, in 2009, Gardner and colleagues published Multiple Intelligences Around the World. In that collection, 42 scholars, from 15 countries, on 5 continents, wrote about the “MI” practices and policies that they had implemented. There are also dozens of “Howard Gardner” and “Multiple Intelligences” schools around the world. While he not endorse the schools individually, Gardner does respond to queries and, when feasible, visits and provides feedback.

There are scores of multiple intelligences tests and programs available, but Gardner has no official connection to any of them. He made the decision not to monetize his work in any way, and he remains content to have made that decision.

Also worth mentioning are a number of other initiatives and contacts:

  • The Multiple Intelligences Society of Japan, which Gardner has been in touch with for many years. The principal contacts are Tomoe Fujimoto and Keiko Ishiwata.
  • Project Spectrum, a major effort to assess intelligences in young children, resulted in three volumes that have been translated and adapted in several countries. Professor Ji-Mei Li from East China Normal University translated all three volumes into Chinese and promoted this work in China.
  • An online course in Multiple Intelligences, offered via Project Zero and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Programs in Professional Education. This course was open to enrollees from around the world.
  • In Denmark, a major theme park, Danfoss Universe, has a section that is based on MI theory. The games and exhibitions are used educationally but also for enjoyment by adults and children.
  • The Ivy Schools in Hong Kong feature MI perspectives.
  • Probably the biggest network of connections is with XSeed Schools, originally only in India but now in various countries in Asia and the Pacific. Founder Ashish Rajpal was Gardner’s student.

While most of the uses of MI theory were positive or benign, there were also misuses. Gardner has devoted quite a bit of time to denouncing efforts in Asia (particularly India and China) to measure intelligences via fingerprint analysis (so-called “dermatoglyphics”). As early as 1995, he published an article called “Reflections on Multiple Intelligences: Myths and Messages”—which is now his most cited and translated article.

As a result of these experiences, Gardner and his colleagues launched The GoodWork Project, now subsumed by the larger initiative known as The Good Project. Gardner and colleagues asked the question of how human intelligences can be used for positive ends. That project has continued for two decades, with many educational applications used broadly.

Within a few years, the Multiple Intelligence International School of Quezon City, Philippines, combined these interests, establishing a national award for individuals who used intelligences in a pro-social way. Gardner attended the first awards ceremony. For more information, contact Mary Joy Abaquin, the founder.

The Good Project

Gardner’s efforts to spread his team’s frameworks and tools on the topic of “good work,” as well as other strands of The Good Project are international. The Good Project is the result of the work of Gardner and colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon, Lynn Barendsen, Wendy Fischman, Carrie James, Kirsten McHugh, and Danny Mucinskas.

Here are brief descriptions and contact persons from various countries.

  • In India and other countries, tGELF (The Global Education and Leadership Foundation) worked with The Good Project for several years to develop a “good work” professional development program and certification for their educators and leadership education for students, partnering with educationalist Gowri Iswaran.
  • In England, Gardner has spoken at the opening of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, directed by James Arthur, and his team has remained in contact with them and contributed to their publications.
  • In the Netherlands, The Professional Honor Foundation has used Gardner’s theories and frameworks of good work extensively in sessions with a number of professionals on a national level, including social service professionals, educators, judges, and accountants, under the direction of Thijs Jansen.

Networks of Schools and Other Educational Institutions

Over the years, Gardner has been privileged to work closely with networks of schools. These include:

  • The remarkable municipal schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, with which Gardner has worked for 35 years and about which he has written many articles and contributed to many books. Project Zero and Reggio continually exchange ideas and practices in partnership with Carlina Rinaldi and Tiziana Filippini. Gardner is also a founding member of the schools’ international scientific advisory board.
  • Col.legi Montserrat, headquartered in Barcelona, but with schools in Africa and Latin America. The schools feature many ideas and practices that Gardner and team have developed, and a wing of the school is dedicated to his contributions.
  • The International Baccalaureate, with which Gardner has had informal ties for over 25 years. Much of Gardner’s work on disciplinary understanding, interdisciplinary understanding, and global citizenship is now embedded in primary school, middle school, and Diploma curricula. This work began in collaboration with his former student, Veronica Boix-Mansilla.
  • In Australia, Gardner and colleagues created an online course on “good work” using material from Gardner’s GoodWork Toolkit curriculum, for Independent Schools Victoria (ISV).
  • Recently, Gardner’s research group has begun a study of the United World Colleges network of schools. Thus far, they are conducting impact evaluation research on these 17 schools and a set of control schools, but it is Gardner’s expectation that they will remain in close contact going forward and work with the schools to make use of the team’s findings.
  • The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, is a key school that has influenced many schools throughout the world. Gardner has close connections with its director, Kiran Sethi, and various of his ideas and practices have been implemented there for some time.
  • The Global Citizens Initiative, launched within the past five years by founder Yumi Kuwana and holding an annual summit at Harvard, enrolls students from all over the world to discuss global citizenship, design thinking, and service projects; GCI will have its 2019 session in Tokyo. Its curriculum is partly based on the “three Es” (excellence, engagement, and ethics) of “good work.”
  • Gardner is also an adviser and contributor to the PLATO project in higher education in Europe, headquartered in Germany.

Daily, Gardner receive inquiries from all over the world. He answers each one, with special attention to those from challenging sites in the developed world.

If you are interested in any of the initiatives or connections above, please feel free to write to Dr. Gardner’s office at hgasst@gse.harvard.edu.

Categories: Blog

January 2019 Lecture Series: Gardner on a National Study of Higher Education

December 13, 2018 - 3:19pm

Since 2012, Howard Gardner and colleagues have worked on a study of colleges and universities in the United States, which they have recently written about in blog posts on this site.

On January 8, 10, and 14, 2019, Gardner will be presenting a three-part lecture series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled “A National Study of Higher Education: Challenges and Rays of Hope.”

Open to the public, Gardner will share preliminary findings from the research, which focuses on how multiple stakeholders (incoming students, graduating students, faculty, senior administrators, parents, alumni/ae, trustees, and job recruiters) on ten participating campuses think about the goals, challenges, and purposes of higher education in the United States, in rapidly changing times.

All presentations will take place in Askwith Lecture Hall on the first floor of Longfellow Hall at 13 Appian Way, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Below is a brief schedule.

January 8, 5:30-7pm, Askwith Hall, Background and Issues
January 10, 5:30-7pm, Askwith Hall, Findings
January 14, 5:30-7pm, Askwith Hall, Conclusions and Recommendations

We hope that you will join for this special event. (Unfortunately, the lectures will not be livestreamed or recorded.)

Please click here for more information.

Categories: Blog

“A Rage to Master”: A Blog on Gifted Children by Dr. Ellen Winner

December 10, 2018 - 1:46pm

Below, we are reprinting a blog post concerning gifted children that originally appeared on Howard Gardner’s official website for MI Theory, multipleintelligencesoasis.org.

Consistent with the name and purpose of this website, most of the entries provide support for the notion of several, relatively independent intellectual capacities, called the “multiple intelligences.” That includes reports on gifted children, most of whom have jagged profiles—that is, they may be very strong in one or two intelligences, less strong in others. Having studied gifted children, Ellen Winner has described many of these youngsters as having a “rage to master”—spending many hours each day engaged in, say, playing chess or practicing the violin.

But, counter to popular lore, there are no necessary patterns across the intelligences. Life is not fair! Some individuals are strong across several intelligences (Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind), while others, less fortunate, struggle in several intelligences. And the reasons for these diverse patterns are also multiple—genetic, cultural, and/or familial.

Recently, my wife, Dr. Ellen Winner, spent time with a remarkable child who, quite unusually, exhibited a “rage to master” across a wide range of learning opportunities. I’m pleased to post this blog—a contribution to our understanding of human giftedness.

-Howard Gardner

A Rage to Master… Everything

Ellen Winner

October 2018

As a developmental psychologist with a particular interest in gifted children, I have observed many unusual children. Most gifted children have one domain in which they excel. Domains in which one most often finds such children are language (speaking in sentences at a very early age), music (playing an instrument), drawing (typically very realistically), mathematics, and chess. These children exhibit what I call a “rage to master,” the domain in which they are strong. They spend hours working at developing their craft, and it is often hard for parents to tear the child away in order to eat, go to school, or go to sleep. These children have an enormous amount of energy which they focus exclusively (or at least primarily) on their domain of strength.

Recently friends of ours visited with their daughter who was on the cusp of turning six and who showed such a rage to master. But hers was unusual. She did not zero in on any one particular domain. Everything she came in contact with seemed to stimulate a rage to master. Because of her boundless energy for everything, she seemed to have a compulsion to keep busy, and if there were no obvious activities to engage in, she made up games for herself.

An example…

When she found some fine markers in our kitchen, she asked for paper and then proceeded to write out the alphabet and numbers up to 20 in very neat handwriting. She did this numerous times, and then used the phone to photograph each image.

Next, she discovered a puzzle where you have to put wooden shapes into a square box so that they all fit perfectly. She used my phone to time herself and was satisfied when she got her time down in half from her first try. After thus competing against herself, she then insisted that everyone else (six adults) try the puzzle, and she timed us each time, smiling broadly each time another person’s time was longer than hers.

In terms of attention, she also stood out. She noticed everything that the adults said in conversation even when she seemed to be concentrating on something else. We could tell because every once in a while she would look up from what she was doing and make a relevant comment.

I was surprised by the acuteness of her memory. At dinner she had asked me for my iPhone code which I gave to her orally. The next morning she picked up my phone and immediately typed in the code. When I told her I was amazed that she remembered, she began to tell me the code for the phone of one of her mother’s friends.

Her personality was strong, and she liked to be in control. She consumed all of our time and attention. We were like pieces in a human chess set that she manipulated. When she saw me holding my iPhone, she took it from me and began to take photos and videos of everyone in the room, including selfies of herself making funny faces. (I should note that her parents rarely take out their phones in front of her.)  She was however an iPhone expert, and instructed me on how to take a still photo and then to press loop or bounce to make the picture move in funny ways (this was news to me!).  She did allow me to take a few photos if I pointed the camera exactly where she instructed me. She was behaving like a movie director – making it clear she was in charge, and we were working for her.

Another way in which she “ran the show” was recounted to me by her father. He told me how he tried to keep her amused at a restaurant by showing her his two closed fists and asking her to guess in which hand he held a piece of paper. After one or two trials, she took over and insisted that he be the one to guess in which hand she was holding the paper.

When she was four, Trump was elected. She asked her parents what a president was. Her father, a policy scholar, listed to her all the things that presidents do and that the government does. When he finished, she said, “Then I want to be president!” That evening over dinner her parents found themselves being bossed around by their daughter. Her mother paused for a moment and then turned to her and asked, “Who set the rules in this house?” Their daughter’s instant reply: “Me because I’m the government.”

Most gifted children have very jagged profiles—ahead in language, average in math; ahead in drawing, average in music. But this child seems to be high in many different intelligences—verbal (did I mention that she is bilingual and speaks fluently a language unrelated to English?), spatial (that puzzle), mathematics (timing everyone on the puzzle; remembering iPhone codes), bodily-kinesthetic (she climbed to the top of the three story climbing structure at the Boston Children’s Museum), musical (she plays the recorder and recorded herself singing for me on my phone), and interpersonal (she had everyone marching to her orders; she formed a strong relationship with both my husband and me the first night she arrived, and I observed her strong connection not only to her parents but to two adult siblings). About intrapersonal intelligence, I can only say that when she was asked a hard question (how can you test which colors a dog can see?) she thought for a while and then said (reflectively and accurately) that she did not know. In addition to her gifts across the board she showed a powerful motivation to compete and an equally powerful motivation to fill her time with goal oriented activities.

The point of this sketch: While most gifted children have a rage to master in one area, this child showed a rage to master everything she came into contact with. Of course, it’s not at all clear what she will grow up to become. But perhaps Bill and Hillary looked like this as young children. Perhaps she really will grow up to be president—of something. I suspect she will not be passively taking orders from any boss.

Categories: Blog

Peer Advising: Benefits and Challenges

December 3, 2018 - 8:39am

by Alina Fein and Wendy Fischman

In many ways, the African adage “it takes a village to raise a child” also applies to college-age students. In speaking with graduating students from many different institutions about their college experience, one would be hard-pressed to find a student who managed to get through the undergraduate years without any help. Given the academic focus and structure of college, we might habitually associate advising with professor-student mentorship. However, in our large national study of higher education, we have discerned an important misalignment: in general, faculty members lament that students don’t come to office hours, while at the same time, students don’t feel that they get the help they need (see recent blog post here). Certainly, faculty and staff influence students, but according to the participants in our study, this influence occurs mostly in the academic realm.

When asked directly, the majority of students identify “peers” as the most influential group on their college experience. This appears to be the case because students most often seek help for personal problems—for example, juggling academic work with jobs outside of school and extra-curricular activities in school, smoothing out dynamics with roommates or friends, or satisfying personal, peer, or familial expectations. Thus, one obvious strategy for providing support is to make greater use of peers.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of peer advisor programs on campuses. Conceptually, peer advisors, who have training and college experience, are meant to combine the comfort and familiarity of fellow students with the knowledge and wisdom typically associated with a professor or older mentor figure—an ideal combination. Though students and others on-campus speak mostly in positive terms about peer advising programs, we encounter yet another misalignment: while schools invest significant resources in setting up such programs, students more frequently rely on their own pre-established relationships, rather than an “assigned” advisor. Peer advising, like any type of formal advising, proves to be complicated.

Our study has identified four main challenges to peer advising:

1) Lack of adequate training: With the increase of mental health issues on campus, some campuses have developed programs and approaches for student ambassadors and peer counselors— individuals who help to create awareness for students about mental health issues as well as resources available on campus. However, these peer advisors are not necessarily trained to deal with specific problems that students may share (ranging from cheating on assignments to sexual assault)—and as a consequence, the ambassador and the confiding student find themselves in uncomfortable positions. One student describes his desire to just be a helpful “peer,” and not a formal “peer advisor” for this very reason: “I don’t think I would want to be [a peer advisor] just because I don’t know how to deal with those issues. I guess I would be trained to. But I… I’d rather someone come to me and talk to me about it instead of feeling like they have to talk to me because I’m a peer advisor.” In addition, though peer advisors go through training sessions, they may not have enough experience or information to know exactly when to refer a student to a professional, and whom a student should see. In a nutshell, undergraduates do not have the graduate training or clinical experience sufficient to help someone in crisis.

2) Confidentiality: In most jurisdictions, students must now report incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment to school administrators. Because of this requirement, these peer advisors no longer have the authority to say that they are a “confidential” resource for students. School administrators hope that peer counselors will still facilitate conversation, but students are less likely to share information that makes them vulnerable, especially if they know that they (or the incidents) will be reported. One student notes the fragility of the student hotline: “[Now] students in need can’t call [other students] in the middle of the night… [which] has caused like a huge uproar because [these peer counselors] are such a great resource for people who don’t feel comfortable going to actual therapy or can’t get an appointment…” For those in an emergency situation, confidentiality may no longer be a possibility.

3) Competing responsibilities: Once students develop a connection with a peer advisor, they may come to rely on this specific person. But peer advisors are college students themselves. Their schedules can be overloaded with coursework, paid jobs on or off campus, as well as unanticipated personal needs. One student laments: “My… counselor… she was helpful at the beginning. But then I like needed a lot more help, and she kind of dropped the ball…” Unintentionally, some colleges may be placing an additional burden on student advisors, a situation that can negatively affect those who come to depend on them.

4) False sense of authority: Students who need help may find themselves caught between two available and apparently knowledgeable peers. Both may intend to help—but they may approach a problem differently. One student describes an uncomfortable situation: his residential advisor and dorm president disagreed about how to bring people together, specifically in structuring activities in the dorm. Though this student acknowledges that while both advisors “want what’s best,” he felt “caught between them.” Instead of providing opportunities for students to bond, this student says, “it’s all gotten very political.” With peers, sometimes, it is not clear who is really in charge.

These four scenarios that we’ve outlined can create difficult situations. Schools want to rely on peers in order to provide some help to the overburdened mental health centers. But responsible administrators cannot afford the liability that arises when students, who are not properly trained, mishandle a delicate, or even a dangerous situation. 

To be sure, peer advisors have the potential to be positive influencers for college students. But in order for this cohort to reach its full potential, schools need to attend to the aforementioned challenges. For example, to overcome training challenges, schools could recruit graduate students (from their own or nearby campuses), who are roughly the same age, but have had more specific training. These graduate students could serve as “counselors in training.” It may be possible to pair graduate students (or even undergraduates) with clinicians, on or off campus, who would be available for referrals, particularly in perilous situations. Schools could also consider offering course credit for being a peer counselor—a policy that might make the responsibilities more manageable for those with limited time. In addition, both peer counselors and students could complete anonymous evaluations about their peer advising experiences. Such reports would include feedback from both parties about the quality of the experience, and particular challenges that arose. Importantly, these strategies would require individuals on and off campus to work together—across departments and divisions—to improve and reimagine peer counseling programs.

All institutions of higher learning strive to inculcate critical thinking in their matriculating students. Administrators and others at these institutions also need to exhibit such thoughtfulness when they institute programs that can harbor high reward, but also pose high risk.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Categories: Blog

Keeping the Professions Alive and True to their Mission: Lessons from the Netherlands

November 29, 2018 - 1:15pm

by Howard Gardner and Danny Mucinskas

For those of us who believe that the professions are a remarkable human creation, worth maintaining and even enhancing, these are depressing times.

On the one hand, so-called professionals, equipped with titles, prestige, and generous income, all too often behave in ways that are embarrassing, if not patently illegal. To mention just a few examples, we have recently seen medical researchers who hide support from drug companies from the public and then provide the results that the companies seek, and educators who falsify test scores in order to receive higher salaries.

On the other hand, powerful and “intelligent” digital applications perform many of the major tasks once handled by trained professionals, in ways that are quicker, more accurate, and far less expensive—and these trends are guaranteed to continue and intensify in the years ahead. “Intelligent” programs can now diagnose melanomas more accurately than physicians, and at least half of the routine work done by lawyers can now be done more efficiently and less costly by digital applications.

When Howard and his colleagues began a study of “good work” a quarter of a century ago, involving both traditional professions like law and medicine, semi-professions like journalism and education, and non-professions like theatre and philanthropy, we had already begun to sense these trends. In studying journalism, we already saw disruptive forces at work—and fully one third of the one hundred journalists whom we interviewed were ready, even eager, to leave the profession altogether. (We interviewed an equal number of researchers in genetics, and none of them even considered leaving their jobs). We also interviewed five kinds of lawyers and found that those in the developing arena of “cyber law” were among the most energized.

The purpose of our project was to understand how people do “good” on the job, what their values, motivations, and responsibilities were, and how they handled vexing situations as they arise. Researchers often heard interviewees talk about the supports or lack thereof within their professional domains and associations that supported or hindered their ability to carry out “good work.”

But members of the Good Work Project (which has now morphed into the more expansive initiative known as The Good Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) were unprepared for the speed and decisiveness of the decline of the professions over the past two decades—at least in the United States, and, as we have learned from the writings of Richard and Daniel Susskind, in the United Kingdom as well. Since the appearance of the Susskinds’ important book The Future of the Professions in 2015, our team has made diligent efforts to voice our concerns and to seek partners, but on American soil we have had modest success. Still, we persevere and are grateful for our collaborators. For example, legal scholar John Bliss of the University of Denver has used our frameworks and tools with law students to explore their professional identities; and colleagues at several educational institutions over the years, such as tGELF in India, have used our GoodWork Toolkit as a part of professional development activities for teachers.

In one of our most fruitful associations, as early as 2009, we were in initial contact with a group of scholars and practitioners in the Netherlands. Led by Thijs Jansen of Tilburg University, members of this group shared our concerns and hopes for the professions today. They created the Professional Honor Foundation (PHF). This organization is dedicated to the study of the professions and professional identity and, to the extent possible, their revitalization in the current social, economic, political, and technological environment, all of which continue to rapidly change in the 21st century.

Over the years, thanks particularly to the efforts of Wiljan Hendrikx, we at The Good Project in Cambridge have kept in touch with the individuals who are spearheading the many activities of PHF. In addition to exchanging messages, papers, books, and regular updates, we also had a very useful gathering at Harvard in October 2016, bringing the two teams together face-to-face for an exchange of ideas and a reaffirmation of our common enterprise.

Recently, as part of our continuing contacts, Howard travelled to the city of Utrecht and spent several hours with Thijs, Wiljan, and a number of their colleagues, all of whom are studying and attempting to refashion for the better different areas of professional practice.

Howard’s visit came as the Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro had just won the 2018 election in his country, as the U.S. mid-term elections were a mere week away, and as worrying political trends were all too salient across much of the globe, from the Americas to Eastern Europe to East Asia.

Yet, within just a few hours, Howard’s spirits were lifted, and he felt a new surge of hopefulness.

Why this renewed optimism? Because on several fronts, PHF has made genuine inroads. To be specific, here are some of the promising developments:

  • In work in the profession of accounting, their recommendations have been widely discussed and at least partially adopted in the Netherlands on a national level, with promising signs as well in the United Kingdom, customarily a bastion of neo-liberal thinking in the erstwhile professions.
  • In the management of local municipalities, several teams of civil servants have met regularly to discuss the rights and responsibilities of those who need and should merit public trust. These teams have drawn on the Good Work Toolkit, which PHF has used and further developed over the past 7 years.
  • Teams of medical workers—physicians, nurses, aides, and more—have convened to sort out their individual and joint responsibilities and to reconsider healthcare management practices. Some of the results are described in a book on the medical profession.
  • Most dramatically, in education, our own field, a fledgling effort to raise the position and stature of educators around the world has picked up considerable support in several countries as a component of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM). This movement started with the book Flip the System, published in 2015. As the title signals, this book put forth the radical notion of turning the education system upside down. In lieu of the top-down bureaucratic approach currently dominating the sector, this movement puts individual educators at the heart of good education. The particular foci in this case are decent salaries, respect for professional judgment, and popular support from the public.

Why, in comparison to the United States, have these efforts been crowned with more success? We can suggest a few possibilities.

First of all, while The Good Project is largely the effort of trained social scientists, PHF draws on several disciplines (e.g. philosophy, management) and on expertise in several professions (as noted, medicine, accounting, management, teaching). Rather than focusing on general processes and practices that ostensibly travel across the professions, most of the efforts of PHF have been directed at specific professions, and their work may therefore be more directly applicable.

Second, rather than depending largely on conceptualization, exhortation, and scholarly writing, PHF has devoted efforts to developing hands-on interventions with practitioners, which begin with the practitioners concerns and involve co-development over time of effective sessions, practices, and policies. A PHF-developed version of the Good Work Toolkit has been quite helpful in facilitating these interventions.

Third, the materials developed by PHF have been directed largely at specific professions—for example, attending (and even convening) conferences and authoring short pieces in profession-specific publications.

Our final “takeaway” is the most speculative. When individuals think of the professions, they typically envision law and medicine. That is understandable, because these are the best known and most attention-grabbing professions. But they may also be the most difficult for outsiders to influence; they are large, powerful, well-protected, and equipped with strong justifications and rationalizations for current practices and malpractices (consider the mammoth United States ABA and the AMA, basically lobbying organizations).

A possible lesson for The Good Project and others lies therein. Instead of focusing on trying to impact those more established professions that have been around in essentially their current form for centuries, begin instead with less visible and less powerful (and therefore less defensive) professions like accounting, K-12 teaching, and municipal management, leaving law and medicine for a later day.

Two possible candidates come to mind from the United States. First, the principles of good work are crucial in engineering. Our colleague Richard Miller, President of Olin College of Engineering, has been a champion in this respect, and to our knowledge, no one has had as much success in conveying the central role of ethics in the professions in the U.S. and abroad as Miller and colleagues, and their work has spilled over into higher education more generally.

Second, almost invisible to many of us, information technology professionals, who “serve” our computers, networks, and digital systems, have tremendous power, and we trust them to act in a professional way, even when we find out that this is not the case (as the recent firestorm of allegations against Facebook would indicate). Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if those whose work has done so much to disrupt the professions could end up serving as a model for professional behavior in the 21st century?

As The Good Project’s team looks ahead to the future and the opportunities we may have to influence professional practice in the United States, we see there is much inspiration to take from the dedicated work that PHF has done and continues to do in the Netherlands and beyond.

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