The Five Minds for the Future

Cultivating and integrating new ways of thinking to empower the education enterprise by Howard Gardner

At the start of the third millennium, we are well-attuned to considerations of the future. In citing the future, I refer to trends whose existence is widely acknowledged: the increasing power of science and technology; the interconnectedness of the world in economic, cultural and social terms; and the incessant circulation and intermingling of human beings of diverse backgrounds and aspirations.


As one who has witnessed discussions of the future all over the world, I can attest that belief in the power of education, for good or for ill, is omnipresent. We have little difficulty in seeing education as an enterprise — indeed the enterprise — for shaping the mind of the future.
What kind of minds should we be cultivating for the future? Five types stand out as particularly urgent. One by one, let me bring them onto center stage.


HowardGardnerHarvard's Howard Gardner wants schools to cultivate five ways of thinking to equip today's students for tomorrow's unknowns.

The Disciplined Mind
In English, the word “discipline” has two distinct connotations. First, we speak of the mind as having mastered one or more disciplines — arts, crafts, professions or scholarly pursuits. By rough estimates, it takes approximately a decade for an individual to learn a discipline well enough so that he or she can be considered an expert or master.

Perhaps at one time, an individual could rest on his or her laurels once such disciplinary mastery had been initially achieved. No longer! Disciplines themselves change, contexts change, as do the demands on individuals who have achieved initial mastery. One must continue to educate oneself and others over succeeding decades.

Such honing of expertise can only be done if an individual possesses discipline — in the second sense of the word. That is, one needs continually to practice in a disciplined way if one is to remain at the top of one’s game.

Though relatively few of us go on to become academic disciplinarians, we first acquire a disciplined mind in school. And indeed that has been the traditional task of schools beyond the elementary years — helping students to grasp what it means to think mathematically, scientifically, historically, artistically.

Note that thinking in a disciplined way is not knowing facts and figures. Such memorized information is discipline-neutral. Rather, it is understanding that a historical explanation of an event differs from a scientific explanation and that the truths of mathematics are not the same as historical truths or as artistic truths — if indeed it is proper to speak of truth with reference to a poem, play or painting.

Nowadays, the mastery of more than one discipline is at a premium. We value those who are multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. We value those who are multidisciplinary (using one discipline after another) or interdisciplinary (combining disciplines to yield new findings). But these claims must be cashed in. We would not consider someone a bilingual person unless he or she could speak more than one language. By the same token, the claim of pluri-disciplinarity (if you’ll excuse this verbal monstrosity) only makes sense if a person has genuinely mastered more than one discipline and can integrate them. For most of us, the attainment of multiple perspectives is a more reasonable goal.

The Synthesizing Mind
Nobel Laureate in Physics Murray Gell-Mann, an avowed multidisciplinarian, has made an intriguing claim. He asserts that in the 21st century the most-valued mind will be the synthesizing mind, the mind that can survey a wide range of sources, decide what is important and worth paying attention to, and then put this information together in ways that make sense to oneself and, ultimately, to others.

Gell-Mann is on to something important. Information has never been in short supply. But with the advent of new technologies and media, most notably the Internet, vast, seemingly indigestible amounts of information now deluge us around the clock. Shrewd triage becomes an imperative. Those who can synthesize well for themselves will rise to the top of their pack, and those whose syntheses make sense to others will be invaluable teachers, communicators and leaders.

Let’s take an example from a history class. Say, as a 9th grader, you are assigned to examine the role of immigration in your home community — in the 19th century and in recent years. The place to begin is with any existing synthesis: fetch it, devour it, evaluate it. If none exists, you turn to the most knowledgeable individuals and ask them to provide the basic information requisite to synthesis. Given this initial input, you then decide what information seems adequate and where important additional data are required.

At the same time, you need to decide on the form and format of the ultimate synthesis — a written narrative, an oral presentation, a set of scenarios, a set of charts and graphs, perhaps a discussion of pros and cons of various waves of immigration leading to a final judgment. At last, the actual work of synthesis begins in earnest. New information must be acquired, probed, evaluated, followed up or sidelined. The new information needs to be fit, if possible, into the initial synthesis, and where fit is lacking, mutual adjustments must be made. Constant reflection is the order of the day.

At some point before the final synthesis is due, a proto-synthesis should be developed. This interim version needs to be tested with the most knowledgeable audience — probably a history teacher or a local historian. However, if the synthesis is to be effective as communication, it also must be shown to someone who is sympathetic but not knowledgeable. Will he or she understand your chief findings, ask relevant questions, make constructive suggestions?

In one sense, good teachers always have modeled synthesizing and have critiqued the adequacy of the syntheses produced by their students. But this skill has rarely been taught explicitly. Nor have standards emerged for what counts as an excellent, an adequate or a flawed synthesis. As educators, we must determine how to nurture synthesizing capacities more widely, since they are likely to remain at a premium in the coming era.

The Creating Mind
In our lifetimes, nearly every practice that is well understood will be automated. Mastery of existing disciplines will be necessary, but not sufficient. The creating mind forges new ground.

In our society we have come to value those individuals who keep casting about for new ideas and practices, monitoring their successes, learning quickly from their failures and near misses. And we give special honor to those rare individuals whose innovations actually change the practices of their peers. In my trade, we call these individuals “Big C creators.”

As a student of creativity, I long assumed that creating was primarily a cognitive feat, having the requisite knowledge and the apposite cognitive processes. But I have come to believe that personality and temperament are equally important, and perhaps even more so for the would-be creator. More than willing, the creator must be eager to take chances, to venture into the unknown, to fall flat on his or her face, and then, smiling, pick oneself up and once more jump into the fray. Even when successful, the creator does not rest on laurels. He or she is motivated again to venture into the unknown and to risk failure, buoyed by the hope that another breakthrough may be in the offing.

In the United States, there have been plenty of lessons over the years about creativity on the streets and in the media. Creativity is an easier sell here than in other nations. The job of schools, accordingly, is not so much the inculcation of creativity, but rather its protection. Educators protect creativity by encouraging multiple approaches to an assignment, asking students to explain their apparently flawed responses, rewarding those who make mistakes but then learn from them.

It is important to ascertain the relation among the three kinds of minds introduced thus far. Clearly, synthesizing is not possible without some mastery of constituent disciplines — and perhaps there is, or will be, a discipline of synthesizing, quite apart from such established disciplines as mathematics or music. I would suggest that creation is unlikely to emerge in the absence of some disciplinary mastery and perhaps some capacity to synthesize as well. You can’t think outside the box unless you have a box!

The Respectful Mind
Almost from the start, infants are alert to other human beings. The attachment link between parent and child is predisposed to develop throughout the early months of life, and the nature and strength of that bond in turn determine much about the capacity of individuals to form relationships with others throughout life.

Of equal potency is the young human’s capacity to distinguish among individuals, and among groups of individuals. We are wired to make such distinctions readily. Indeed our survival depends on our ability to distinguish among those who would help and nourish us and those who might do us harm. But the messages in our particular environment determine how we will label individuals or groups. Our own experiences and the attitudes displayed by the peers and elders to whom we are closest determine whether we like, admire or respect certain individuals and groups or whether, on the contrary, we come to shun, fear or even hate these individuals.

We live in an era when nearly every individual is likely to encounter thousands of individuals personally and when billions of people have the option of traveling abroad or of encountering individuals from remote cultures through visual or digital media. A person possessed of a respectful mind welcomes this exposure to diverse persons and groups. A truly cosmopolitan individual gives others the benefit of doubt; displays initial trust; tries to form links; and avoids prejudicial judgments.

Of course, the first steps toward respect or disrespect begin in the home. But for nearly all young people, the atmosphere within a school makes an enormous contribution to the development (or lack of development) of a respectful stance. Education leaders set the tone by how they deal with everyone — from school boards to principals, from parents to teachers. Just consider the different messages sent by Nelson Mandela, on the one hand, and Slobodan Milosevic, on the other.

The Ethical Mind
An ethical stance is in no way antithetical to a respectful one, but it involves a much more sophisticated stance toward individuals and groups. A person possessed of an ethical mind is able to think of her- or himself abstractly, able to ask, “What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a worker do I want to be? What kind of a citizen do I want to be?”

Going beyond the posing of such questions, the person is able to think about him- or herself in a universalistic manner: “What would the world be like if all persons behaved the way that I do, if all workers in my profession took the stance that I have, if all citizens in my region or my world carried out their roles in the way that I do?” Such conceptualization involves a recognition of rights and responsibilities attendant to each role. And crucially, the ethical individual behaves in accordance with the answers he or she has forged, even when such behaviors clash with self-interest.

The seeds that eventually lead to the sprouting of an ethical mind may begin in early life, but ethical thought usually emerges only in the adolescent years. That is because the ethical mind requires abstraction — the capacity to think of oneself not as John or Judy, but as a journalist or engineer and as a citizen of Cincinnati, China or the entire globe.

Within schools, students do not literally have an occupation or a citizen’s card. But for most young people, schools are the first substantial institution in which they are involved. And so it is a permissible extension to think of the vocational role of the young person as student and the citizenship role of the young person as a member of the school community. The habits of mind developed as student worker and student citizen may well help determine the ethical (or nonethical) stand of the future adult.

Determining what is ethical can prove especially challenging during times, like our own, when conditions are changing very quickly and when market forces are powerful and unmitigated. Even when one has determined the proper course, it is not always easy to behave in an ethical manner, and that is particularly so when one is highly ambitious, when others appear to be cutting corners, when different interest groups demand contradictory things from workers, when the ethical course is less clear than one might like, and when such a course runs against one’s immediate self-interest.

It is so much easier, so much more natural, to develop an ethical mind when one inhabits an ethical environment. But such an environment is neither necessary nor sufficient. That is why the ethical tone of a school and a school system is so important. Education in ethics may not begin as early as education for respect, but neither curriculum ever ends.

Tension Exists
Of the five minds, the ones most likely to be confused with one another are the respectful mind and the ethical mind. In part, this is because of ordinary language. We consider respect and ethics to be virtues, and we assume that one cannot have one without the other. Moreover, often they are correlated. Persons who are ethical are also respectful, and vice versa.

However, as indicated, I see these as developmentally discrete accomplishments. One can be respectful from early childhood, even without having a deep understanding of the reasons for respect. In contrast, ethical conceptions and behaviors presuppose an abstract, self-conscious attitude, a capacity to step away from the details of daily life and to think of oneself as a worker or as a citizen.

Whistle-blowers are a good example. Many individuals observe wrongdoing at high levels in their organization and remain silent. They may want to keep their jobs, but they also want to respect their leaders. It takes both courage and a mental leap to think of oneself not as an acquaintance of one’s supervisor, but rather as a member of an institution or profession, with certain obligations attendant thereto. The whistle-blower assumes an ethical stance, at the cost of a respectful relation to his or her supervisor.

Sometimes, respect may trump ethics. Initially, I defended the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons that poked fun at Islamic fundamentalism. I was taking our Bill of Rights at face value — guaranteed freedom of expression, no state religion. But I eventually came to the conclusion that this ethical stance needed to be weighed against the costs of disrespecting the sincere and strongly held religious beliefs of others. The costs of honoring the Islamic preferences seem less than those of honoring an abstract principle. Of course, I make no claim that I did the right thing — only that the tension between respect and ethics can be resolved in contrasting ways.

Wake-up Calls
How can one nurture these minds in the young? Awareness of the minds — realizing the importance of synthesis, recognizing the differences between discipline and creativity — is a first step. Positive examples of each mind, either from life or from history, are valuable. So, too, one learns from contemporary or historical figures who were undisciplined or disrespectful or unethical.

A sense of the developmental trajectory is important. The serious work of disciplining the mind begins early, but it presupposes the basic literacies. Wake-up calls may be helpful. These can be positive instances — an example of a teacher whose students’ creations are notable — and they can be reactions to negative events — how the school handles a case of student cheating or a case where a teacher leaks the test to raise the scores of students.

No education leader will possess all five minds in full-blown form, but all can work to enhance each of these minds. Leaders who are not themselves expert synthesizers should make sure that others on their staff have this particular gift. Of course, experts in the specific disciplines will be needed not only in the classroom but in key administrative roles. But the respectful and ethical minds cannot be outsourced. Unless the leader is a paragon of respect and ethics, he or she cannot expect to encounter these virtues throughout the system.

No strict hierarchy exists among the minds, such that one should be cultivated before the others. Yet a rhythm does exist. One needs discipline, in both senses of the term, before one can undertake a reasonable synthesis, and if the synthesis involves more than one discipline, then each of the constituent disciplines needs to be cultivated.

By the same token, any genuinely creative activity presupposes a certain mastery of discipline. While prowess at synthesizing may be unnecessary, nearly all creative breakthroughs, whether in the arts, politics, scholarship or corporate life, are dependent to some extent on provisional syntheses. Still, too much discipline clashes with creativity, and those who excel at syntheses are less likely to effect the most radical creative breakthroughs.

Role Modeling
In the end, it is desirable for each person to have achieved aspects of all five minds for the future. Such a personal integration is most likely to occur if individuals are raised in environments where all five kinds of minds are exhibited and valued. So much the better if there are role models — parents, teachers, masters, supervisors — who display aspects of discipline, synthesis, creation, respect and ethics on a regular basis. In addition to embodying these kinds of minds, the best educators at school or work can provide support, advice and coaching to inculcate discipline, encourage synthesis, prod creativity, foster respect and encourage an ethical stance.

No one can compel the cultivation and integration of the five minds. The individual human being must come to believe that the minds are important, merit the investment of significant amounts of time and resources, and are worthy of continuing nurturance, even when external supports have faded. The individual must be aware that sometimes these minds will find themselves in tension with one another and that any resolution will be purchased at some cost.

In the future, the form of mind that is likely to be at greatest premium is the synthesizing mind. And so it is fitting that the melding of the minds within an individual’s skin is the ultimate challenge of personal synthesis.

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. E-mail: hgasst@pz.harvard.edu. This article is based on his book Five Minds for the Future. Copyright Howard Gardner, 2007.