Howard Gardner is the psychologist and educator who introduced the idea of multiple intelligences. More recently, Gardner has suggested five distinct mental abilities, or minds, that are important for educators to cultivate in order for students to be effective and successful in the globalized complex world of the digital information age [1]. The first three minds are cognitive, the last two relational:

  1. The Disciplined Mind masters key subjects.
  2. The Synthesizing Mind organizes information to make sense to self and others new connections.
  3. The Creating Mind breaks new ground and discovers new concepts.
  4. The Respectful Mind understands and appreciates the differences of others.
  5. The Ethical Mind seeks to identify and fulfill one’s obligations to others and society.

What’s interesting is that Gardner here is not writing as a psychologist but as an observer of culture. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Gardner said

When I talk about the five minds for the future, there is no scientific claim that these are the five minds that God gave us or that are innate or that we have to develop. Rather, I’m making the case that in the future people need to have minds that are disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. [2]

Disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. It’s a good simple list that faculty and teachers can use to help students understand both what is expected of them and why.

Following the instructions and rules, for instance, is a form of building discipline. Disciplined people who can understand and work within parameters, who can get things right the first time, who can stay focused and on task, even when that task is no fun: this makes for a good citizen and a good worker. Or the the ability to synthesize: it means better problem-solving and critical thinking, necessary skills in any workplace or organizational setting.

Feedback and Formation

Gardner gives us some vocabulary and concepts to approach the learning task in a better manner. I suggest teaching faculty keep this list close at hand and use it to help shape their own thinking, their own minds, about the various aspects they need to cultivate in the mind of a student. Great learning, holistic character and citizenship formation  (the goal of classical liberal arts learning), and productive skill development are never the product of just one single way of thinking.

One suggestion is to use this list as you are reviewing student work. Do any of these minds seem applicable to the task at hand. And, if so, what feedback could you provide to help strengthen or better cultivate that particular mind?

A second suggestion is to use these minds as a lens for helping you communicate with students each week or session. What general things can you say in lectures, announcements, or general class discussion to help stimulate one or more of these minds? I have discovered in my own teaching that when I set expectations high (Disciplining) for students but then take time to explain my reasoning and to help them see how their growth is my motive (Respectful and Synthesizing) that students actually come to value my toughness and rise to meet or exceed those expectations. Time and time again, I have seen students grow to the place where a high level of productivity and integrated, holistic thinking has become voluntary and normal.

A Student Model

I can see possibly developing a model for student success based off of Gardner’s work in which each of the 5 minds describes a list of more particular responsibilities, habits, characteristics, or skills that successful learners demonstrate. This model could then be incorporated into student orientation and introductory courses. It would also provide a framework for helping assess and coach students throughout a course.


[1] Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.