Big Fat Porkies
The Fairies of Plant Street
The New Child
War Over Work
The Patchwork Nation
Men Mateship marriage

Howard Gardner's 5 Minds for the Future: Public Forum Melbourne June 6, 2007

By Patricia Edgar

I first became aware of the Howard Gardner's work nearly 20 years ago.  I had spent 10 years teaching in a university School of Education, five years as Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's Children's Programme Committee, which set standards and approved children's programs for a broadcast quota.  That was a challenging task. Then I found myself with another one, setting up the Australian Children's Television Foundation where I had the task of turning theory into practice and producing the programs I had claimed should present the best of what children could expect to see on television. Some years into that role, I decided I wanted to try to produce a ground breaking early childhood program drawing on the latest knowledge about child development and employing the best talent in Australia, to devise an entertaining, educational and creative experience for children.  I had a strong belief in the potential of television for educational purposes.

It was then I read Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences.  It was an epiphany; one of those life defining moments when suddenly there is clarity. It made complete sense to me and this theory would underscore Lift Off the early childhood program I was devising.  And so I travelled to Harvard University to meet Howard Gardner. Then as now - in Howard's latest book, Five Minds for the Future - I encountered a well reasoned and compelling set of propositions which, if we could apply them in our education system, I have no doubt we would live in a better and safer world, and a society that would stand a much better chance, than we do now, for surviving into the future. In Howard's final paragraph he says, “Perhaps members of the human species will not be prescient enough to survive, or perhaps it will take 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.”

Much of my career has been involved with the application of ideas and I want to briefly describe an experience - with which Howard is familiar- that leads me to a question for Howard.

When I developed Lift Off, I gathered together more than 100 experts from differing fields with an interest in children.  There were mathematicians, philosophers, scientists, musicians, writers, illustrators, poets, psychologists, sociologists, environmentalists, puppeteers, actors - every field imaginable and every form of intelligence was represented - and over three workshops we devised a curriculum and characters for the series Liftoff.   The project blossomed as individuals with different perspectives, knowledge and experience mixed ideas. . There were clashes and conflicts but the obstructionists were weeded out very much in the way Howard describes should be done in Five Minds for the Future.

Over three workshops we devised a program that became an extraordinary success with its audience, with the educators and collaborators involved, and with the critics.  Lift Off was endorsed by all State Directors of Curriculum. The ACTF had outreach activities organized with parents and teachers and the Curriculum Corporation developed teaching materials. $17 million was invested.  It took 4 years and it seemed we had got things right. The program would evolve and we were well on the way to achieving a national education program involving parents, schools and television; an experiment in television for children unlike any in the world.  But something intervened. The market spoke.

The ABC - our public broadcaster - cancelled Lift Off  so it could invest in Bananas in Pyjamas - a simple, banal project - useless for educational purposes , but a program they owned fully, that could be accompanied by  a suite of merchandise. They continued with Play-school, a program which had run its course in the UK and Canada because of its old- fashioned and outdated educational approach. Now what do we have? Play-school has celebrated 50 years on air and the media have touted that as an achievement and Australia has two iconic bananas. Lift Off an extraordinary resource for young children languishes on the shelf unseen except by a privileged few including my four grand children. Australian television does no more than but divert and entertain our early childhood population, in their critical formative years.

I still believe in the potential of the media to contribute powerfully to the education of young minds. But we have allowed the media to abdicate any responsibility for the type of education Howard Gardner is calling for. Instead we allow them to influence, lifestyle, fashion, health and consumption generally. Television for children world wide has become a negative force. Targeting children as consumers is contributing to obesity and their sexualisation at a young age. And we waste their brain power, which is surging in those early years, as we steal their time to deliver to them programs of inconsequence with a commercial purpose.

Howard writes in Five Minds for the Future,” Society does not always support the propagation of such positive role models. It is difficult to be a disciplined thinker when television quiz shows lavishly reward disparate factual knowledge.  It is difficult to be respectful toward others when an argument mentality characterizes politics and the mass media and when bald-faced intimidators morph into cultural heroes.  It is difficult to behave ethically when so many rewards - monetary and renown - are showered on those who spurn ethics, but have not, or at  least have not yet, been held accountable by the broader society. Were our media and our leaders to honour the five kinds of minds foregrounded here, and to ostracize those who violate these virtues, the job of the educators and supervisors would be incalculably easier”

My question to Howard Gardner is: how do we achieve the change in attitudes necessary to reform our education system?

He says and I agree “Schools alone cannot do the job. The burden of education must be shared by parents, neighbours, the traditional and digital media, the church and other communal institutions.”

Howard says he does “not believe for a minute that markets will inevitably yield benign or moral outcomes.  They can be cruel and, anyway, are fundamentally amoral.  And he draws on the words of Jonathan Sacks Chief Rabbi in Britain.
“When everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to our advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans become our litany, when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtues on which in the long run it depends.”

In his book Howard has moved from describing the typical operations of the mind to offering views about how we should use our minds.

I have tried to work with the education system to change media for children. Anything I have achieved is but a drop in an ocean. I now think that we need an integrated child policy that brings together education, health and communication policy for children. Education policy does not deal with the media. I think it must, for the negative and powerful influence of the media in a free market economy is too overpowering for parents and educators to contend with in the development of Howard Gardner's Five Minds of the Future?

What is the next step?

Gardner and Good Work - Don Edgar's Response to 5 Minds for the Future
Forum, 7 July, 2007

Howard's opening premise - that in this interconnected age, it is not possible for parts of the world to thrive while others remain desperately poor and frustrated - is a challenge to all of us who work either in government or in business. Because many governments and many corporations round the world continue to ignore Benjamin Franklin's words (quoted by Gardner on p. 2 of his book 'Five Minds for the Future'): “We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Over the last several years, I have been working with business organizations and with government departments and community service organizations in an attempt to get them to see those connections - in Howard's terms, to synthesise the lessons learned from the not-so-disciplined areas of economics, family research, social welfare, community-building, good governance and human resource management.

I have two related issues I'd like Howard to address, if he would:

  • One concerns the ethics of work-family relations
  • The other concerns a lack of respect between government policy-makers and administrators and the community they are there to serve
  • The element common to them both is what I see as an inability on the part of many so-called experts (those who have mastered a discipline such as management, or social work, or economics) to see the links - to synthesise - that would improve both efficiency and the common good.

Let me explain very briefly.

Howard talks about good work as being excellent in quality, being engaging and meaningful, and being responsible in that it takes into account its implications for the wider community. As well, he suggests that the ethical mind is not restricted to the workplace - it involves everyone in working towards the realization of the virtuous community.

It seems to me then, that the way a workplace or business treats its workers and their family/community obligations lies at the heart of what Howard calls 'good work'. If a worker is prevented from fulfilling his or her family and wider community responsibilities because of unsympathetic work practices, then the whole social fabric is damaged.

I have long argued that family work is work of meaning and value, yet it is not valued (not even recognized) by many corporate leaders and business managers. Their attitude is that having a family to care for is an individual choice and a private obligation, that their only duty is to run the business for profit - the shareholders' profit that is - and employee needs, such as flexible start and finish times, parental leave, time off to meet the often pressing and urgent demands of children or ageing parents, are not their concern.

True, the good employer does take note, and we have some good corporate models, but after three decades working in the area of work-family balance, I can tell you it's a grudging acceptance, with the words flexibility and choice taking on a new meaning more suited to business efficiency than good work-family practice.

This is true in spite of sound research showing the economic cost-benefits of a family-friendly workplace: attracting the best recruits, retaining them and avoiding the costs of retraining new employees, being the employer of choice, not to mention the gains from lower absenteeism, fewer accidents, better morale and productivity, etc. 

They are experts in their field, but fail to see the links into other aspects of community life that affect their business.

There seems little concern for the wider community good that comes from encouraging employees to better fulfil their family and citizen obligations. Instead, we have corporate philanthropy defined narrowly as giving to good causes, more often show than substance, when better results might be had by businesses working more closely with family support services and local schools to build a truly family-friendly, child-friendly community. This is what I have called 'The New Links Workplace', a creative re-alignment of workplace, family and community interests.  But very few businesses bother.

This brings me to my second example, that of government-community relations. In my book The Patchwork Nation, I argued against one-size-fits-all, top-down delivery of government services to the diverse patchwork of communities and regions that make up this nation. Howard cites the Italian community of Reggio Emilia as a good example of not just quality early childhood services, but of a place where every aspect of community affairs is cognizant of its impact on the quality of life of its children and families as a whole. It's a message policy-makers should take note of.

The research is clear on this - it's not just the quality of individual pre-school programs, or separate school curricula, or of the local health services that matters. It is the ways in which they work together, the links made across related professional spheres; plus the degree to which they engage with, actually involve and encourage the participation of parents and citizens in the decision-making process, that correlates with good child outcomes, better school readiness, enhanced family welfare in general.

Being engaged, surrounded by well-integrated support systems, is far more effective (and cost-efficient) than merely providing top-down services to needy clients. But that message does not somehow get through. And government services typically work in isolation from the workplaces which directly affect family life.

Members of this audience will have heard endless talk on the part of the Victorian Government about community-building, about a whole-of-government approach, about participatory decision-making. But I can tell you, the Emperor wears no clothes. And why?

My guess is that what Howard Gardner calls the disciplined mind, the experts who manage our service systems, are not at all convinced that they should respect (or even bother listening to) that endlessly messy and recalcitrant lot we call the citizens (in their terms, the clients of the service system).

I was a member of the Premier's Children's Advisory Committee which recommended a new, community-based approach to early childhood services. The Premier accepted our recommendations in toto. Yet, two plus years later, the key recommendation to set up Children's Resource Zones, develop community family forums and build integrated children's centres - to be more creative in the way community support services are developed and run - looks a distant dream. We have some integrated children's centres, some community involvement, but overall the system looks the same. Other more professional problems get in the way - the political dangers of child protection, the quirks of personal ministerial policy interests, and (in my view) the inertia of a professionalized system that thinks it knows best.

Too much money is still spent on services that are not preventative, not strength-building, merely stop-gap ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. And community concerns, family engagement in deciding how their diverse needs might best be met, continue to be ignored.

So, Howard, how would you suggest we tackle both the weighty ballast of professional expertise and its lack of respect for the views of ordinary citizens, and their inability to synthesise beyond their own field of knowledge, to see the links between economics, social welfare, community-building, between health, education, welfare and work, in order to build a truly ethical, mutually respectful society and community?