Howard Gardner’s “Five Minds for the Future”

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Social Technologies
Change)Waves newsletter

In his latest book, “Five Minds for the Future,” psychologist Howard Gardner breaks from his usual approach of describing the operations of the brain. Instead, the author who is best known for his controversial theory of multiple intelligences focuses on the skills and understandings people will need to develop to thrive in the future.

“Why the shift from description to prescription?” he asks in the introduction to his 196-page book, published by Harvard Business School Press. “In the interconnected world, in which the vast majority of human beings now live, it is not enough to state what each individual or group needs to survive on its own turf.

“Further, the world of the future—with its ubiquitous search engines, robots, and other computational devices—that demand capacities that until now have been mere options. To meet this new world on its own terms, we should begin to cultivate these capacities now.”


Gardner’s five “minds” are: Disciplinary, Synthesized, Creating, Respectful, and Ethical [see below: The Five Minds at Work].

He defines each mind thoroughly and thoughtfully, and provides mini how-to guides on ways one can maximize the benefits of the different minds-including tips on “how to discipline a mind,” or “how to create in large and small groups.”

Throughout the book, Gardner offers the kind of deep insights that fans of his work have come to expect. One thing that shines through the book is that Gardner clearly wants his work to be applied to create a better future.

He writes: “The task for educators becomes clear: if we are to fashion persons who respect differences, we need to provide models and offer lessons that encourage such a sympathetic stance. Such modeling is especially crucial when the power relationships between individuals or groups appear to be asymmetrical.”

In fact, Gardner spends much of the book focusing on ways educators can better hone the five minds of students in kindergarten through college. But quite clearly, he also hopes to grab the attention of corporate leaders.

“Consciousness of the five minds is probably greater in many corporations than it is in many school systems,” Gardner writes. “Nonetheless, much of corporate education is narrowly focused on skills: innovation is outsourced to Skunk Works; ethics is the topic of an occasional workshop. We do not think deeply enough about the human qualities that we want to cultivate at the workplace, so that individuals of diverse appearance and background can interact effectively with one another.”


In the end, Gardner says he is optimistic that educational, political, and managerial systems will cultivate and nurture the five minds well enough that future generations will be prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century. And yet, in a conclusion that is highly personal, he offers a future-focused note of caution.

“Perhaps members of the human species will not be prescient enough to survive, or perhaps it wit[ take far more immediate threats to our survival before we make common cause with our fellow human beings. In any event, the survival and thriving of our species will depend on our nurturing of potentials that are distinctly human.”


The following, in Gardner’s own words, are definitions of the Five Minds along with his suggestions for how they can be applied by the business community:

*The Disciplinary Mind—*Requires mastery of several major schools of thought including science, mathematics, and history, and at least one professional craft.

Application in business: Continuing mastery of one’s professional role, including the acquisition of additional disciplinary or interdisciplinary acumen.

*The Synthesized Mind—*The ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.

Application in business: Recognizing new information and skills from diverse realms that are important, and then incorporating them into one’s knowledge base and one’s professional repertoire.

*The Creating Mind—*The capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions, and phenomena.

Application in business: Thinking outside the box by putting forth recommendations for new practices and products, explicating them, seeking endorsements, and enactment. For the leader, formulating and pursuing new visions.

*The Respectful Mind—*Awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings.

Application in business: Working effectively with peers, supervisors, employees, irrespective of their backgrounds and status, and developing capacity for understanding forgiveness.

*The Ethical Mind—*Fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and citizen.

Application in business: Knowing the core values of one’s profession and seeking to maintain them and pass them on, even at times of rapid and unpredictable change. A willingness to speak out even at personal cost; recognizing one’s responsibilities as a citizen of one’s community, region, nation, and world and acting on those responsibilities.


Psychologist Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero, where he and his colleagues have been working for decades on the design of performance-based assessments. Gardner is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences: a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. Instead, he posits a new blueprint based on nine types of intelligence inherent in each of us.

He is the author of several hundred articles and two-dozen books that have been translated into 26 languages. These include Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple lntelligences; Art, Mind, and Brain; Extraordinary Minds; Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds; and Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.

Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in
1981. He has received honorary degrees from 21 colleges and universities, including institutions in Ireland, Italy, Israel, and Chile.