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Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds
An Interview with Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner

Harvard Graduate School of Education
June 1, 2004
 

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Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner (photo: Jay Gardner)  
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education and senior director at Project Zero, Howard Gardner is highly recognized for his unique theory on multiple intelligences, a philosophy that challenges the traditional assumption that we only have one type of intelligence. His current research in cognitive psychology has led to Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), a book that explores the mysterious process of mind change and a systematic approach to influencing perspectives.

Q: In Changing Minds, you describe seven distinct "levers" that are helpful in the process of changing someone's mind (i.e., reason, research, real world events, etc.). In your experience as a professor, which of these levers do you think is most helpful in the classroom?

A: I think of the seven levers as seven arrows in a quiver—any one of them may be useful for a particular episode of mind changing. For the classroom and teachers in general, I think two levers stand out in importance: (1) the lever of representational re-description and (2) the lever of overcoming resistance.

Many of us fail to recognize that we are fundamentalists ourselves—not necessarily in regards to religion, but perhaps about politics, family, or science.

First, the lever of representational re-description states that minds are most likely to be changed if they are introduced to the new idea or concept in as many appropriate ways as possible, which is relevant to my theory of multiple intelligences. When teaching, it is not enough to merely repeat a point over and over again. For example, if you are teaching the theory of evolution, it is useful to enforce the instruction with additional ideas in visual or hands-on support such as diagrams, simulations, narratives, logical syllogisms or live demonstrations (e.g., fruit flies).

Second, the lever of overcoming resistance recognizes that individuals develop very strong theories and concepts—often misconceptions—about the world when they are young. These ideas tend to become entrenched early on, and teachers regularly underestimate the strength and persistence of these formative ideas. Yet, unless these misconceptions are challenged, students are likely to remain with these early ideas or maintain them alongside the new and more adequate concepts. Thus, the dedicated teacher must find ways to undermine these early ideas and keep them from re-emerging.

Q: How is the art and science of changing minds related and important to the goals of education? What do you think are the implications of the conclusions in Changing Minds on traditional methods of pedagogy?

A: In the book, I talk about mind changing in six different arenas, ranging from the leader who tries to change the thinking of his nation, to a therapist who is working to bring about a new self-concept in a patient. All of the arenas that I discuss are relevant in education. After all, what does the president of a country, or a university, or the CEO of a company do when exercising leadership? He is trying to teach his constituents how to think about important issues in a new way.

As educators, we are challenged to change the minds of individuals—be they students, peers, parents, or our own supervisors.

One of the arenas that I discuss is that of the classroom and my ideas about mind changing here are directly tied to education. But as educators, we are also challenged to change the minds of individuals—be they students, peers, parents, or our own supervisors. In addition, we need to consider what it takes to change our own minds about consequential issues. In the book, I suggest that fundamentalism is a commitment not to change one's mind on certain issues. Many of us fail to realize that we are fundamentalists ourselves—not necessarily in regards to religion, but perhaps about politics, family, or science. While fundamentalism is not necessarily bad, one needs to be aware of the areas where one simply refuses to change one's mind and have good reasons for such tenacity.

Q: One of the major ideas in your book is that it is important to know one's audience when seeking to change minds. What does this imply, if anything, about teacher-student relationships?

A: As I mentioned, the mind changer has a number of arrows in his quiver, and it is important that he selects the most appropriate ones for a given situation. This is why it is important to know your audience. If I am trying to convince a colleague to try something new, I need to know whether that colleague is most persuaded by argument, by research data, by rewards, by real-world events, by humor, or some other form of proof.

Teachers need to heighten their awareness about individual students, particularly when problems or challenges arise. But they also need to know about the general properties that characterize students of a certain age. We know, for example, that eight-year-olds are creationists, independent of whether their parents are fundamentalists or atheistic scientists. Presumably this is because eight-year-olds are interested in origins, and the default assumption is that the world was created at a certain time, with its requisite plants and animals, and has never changed. Teachers in the primary grades can assume that this feature applies to all of their students. However, what might convince one student may well be different from what convinces the others, something that blends my ideas about changing minds with my multiple intelligences theory.

Q: While your new book outlines systematic and transparent methods to improving the odds of changing someone's mind, are there other forms of persuasion? Do you think there are dangers in using either transparent or more subtle methods?

A: As a scholar, I am interested in all kinds of mind changes, including ones of which I do not personally approve. I cannot only write about the kinds of persons and examples that I like—if I did so, I would miss some of the most powerful examples of mind changing. I faced the same problem in studying multiple intelligences and different kinds of creativity and leadership—I would not be able to understand my topic well unless I surveyed a full range of people, including those of whom I vehemently disapprove, such as Osama bin Laden.

As a citizen, however, it is important for me to speak out on issues that matter. For this reason, I have occasionally singled out applications of the multiple intelligences theory of which I do not agree or approve. At the end of Changing Minds, I discuss what I call "goodware," or the kinds of mind changing that I most admire—the form in which individuals come to appreciate a story or explanation that is more complex than the one to which they are accustomed. This kind of mind changing enhances positive human possibilities. My personal heroes include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Jean Monnet.

For More Information
More information about Howard Gardner is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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