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On Continuity and Change

The prepared remarks of Convocation speaker Howard Gardner
Howard Gardner
Professor Howard Gardner introducing his Convocation remarks

Many Thanks to Bridget — for many years you’ve been a valued colleague, scholar, academic dean, and then dean — yeoman service to the institution. You are still young — especially in comparison to some of us — indeed still a kid with many more years of productive scholarship and service ahead.

Speaking of years to go: Standing here in front of you all, in my 81st year, I cant help taking a trip down memory lane. I first walked through Radcliffe Yard as a college freshman in 1961; began to work in Longfellow Hall  just behind all of you in 1967 (almost 60 years ago).

Ever since 1967, this site, the cluster of neo-Georgian buildings has been my working home. My graduate training was in developmental psychology and not in education proper, but education has been central — as it has been for so many of you — for almost all of my waking life. Indeed almost all human beings, have been involved in education, formal or informal, from preschool to post-retirement — for much of their lives.  

Moreover, to the point: All of you who are graduating have decided that education will remain central in your life, though the ways that you are involved in education (and that your families have and will be involved in education) differ and will necessarily change over time.

I invite you to reflect: Why you went into education, what you most hope to achieve, for yourself and for others, for next week and for decades from now — maybe even for over 60 years! That’s the focus of my talk today.

As my starting point I ‘ve chosen two well known adages, almost cliches. I know them in English but I’m sure that they exist in many other languages as well; I dub them Continuity and Change:

  1. There is nothing new under the Sun — that’s Continuity.
  2. You can never step in the same river twice — that’s Change.

There may have been some societies — that have stayed relatively stable or constant — but that’s almost never true nowadays. And certainly for those of you who have a half century or more in education to look forward to, you can expect multitudinous change(s).

Anyone in the vicinity of a newsfeed will be alert to the ubiquity and speed of change: The advent of new technologies and of powerful computational systems, of which chat GPT is the one that educators most often think about nowadays; the reality of increasingly destructive climate change which can be denied only by the most ostrich-like; the radical shifts in governmental systems, both within countries and around the world, a situation which most of us find disconcerting, even alarming.

Not to say that all change is frightening; advances in literacy, health care, longevity, are notable as well; and an increasing part of the world is the beneficiary of medical and technological advances. (Here I consult my inner Steve Pinker, the colleague who believes most ardently in progress.)  

So that’s change — but what about continuity, stability, and longer arcs of familiarity?

It’s more challenging to come up with a convincing list in 2024 but I’ll mention some likely candidates:

  • The stability of the universe, at least for the next few million years. We hope that any expansion (or contraction) will be undetectable.
  • The stability of our solar system, and the planets and moons closest to us; especially in terms of their basic chemistry and their physics (one person counting on that is rocketeer Elon Musk).
  • Relatedly, closer to home night and day, day and night. As I said, the Sun looms over little that is new.

How about human biology? At least until recently, that’s been stable for millennia, though with genetic experimentation that could change. CrispR is a powerful technology for genetic manipulation entailing both risks and benefits. Also, the length of the life cycle, while extending gradually, is still not different from Biblical times. As some of you know, my e-mail nickname is Methusula! Fewer than 900 years to go!

More Continuity, consider human psychology: Most of us can recognize familiar individuals and familiar conflicts and crises in the writings of the Greeks, of Shakespeare, or Herman Melville or Toni Morison.

And those who know other cultural traditions — Confucian, Islamic, Native Americans, African-Americans — can also recognize many of the same facets of the human condition. We all celebrate similar rites of passage; entire cultures — modern and ancient, homogenous or heterogenous — deal with the same issues: good and bad leaders, equity/lack of equity, crime and punishment, love/hatred, life and death, comedy and tragedy.

Hey Howard , you are almost halfway through your talk and you have barely touched on education — what gives?? The clock is ticking!! Research documents that average individuals can only focus on a video segment for 7–8 minutes — but you are an extraordinary group, as signified by the degrees that Dean Long will present to you in less than 24 hours.

And because you are extraordinary, I suspect you may well have anticipated the theme of my talk:

All of us in education — whether teaching preschoolers or mentoring post docs; whether assuming the roles of teacher, administrator, tutor, legislator, entrepreneur even life-long students; whether working in Singapore or Cincinnati,  in Hollywood or Harlem — all of us need to be aware of, monitor, deal with the continuities in education even as we need as well to monitor the changes. And [we need to] seek to deal with those changes  as  adroitly, as thoughtfully, and and fairly and successfully as possible.

Allow me take some examples from my own research, carried out over the last six decades at Project Zero — mostly in Longfellow Hall:

What We Have Learned: Three Lines of Research

The Arts 

The Arts used to be thought of as entertainment, just pleasure — we’ve demonstrated that the arts are highly cognitive as well, involving thinking, problem solving, problem finding, and, especially creating something new. Even a powerful computer program can create art work that is stunning, but that in no way means that we human beings should abandon our artistic efforts. After all, just because a car can go faster than we can, we still race (especially in Boston in the middle of April). Just because a powerful computer can beat a champion at chess, that [doesn't mean] we no longer should engage in that board game.


Sixty years ago there was a widespread belief that intelligence is fixed, single capacity, on which all human beings can be aligned, and my fellow psychologists could tell you your life chances based solely on your IQ score. Now, thanks to our own work and that of colleagues like Daniel Goleman (who writes about emotional intelligence), we realize that human beings have multiple intelligences — these can be discovered, built up (unlike g or general intelligence, MI is not fixed, intelligences can be enhanced), put together in new ways. And perhaps, working together with smart machines, we will be able to accomplish what not even the writers of science fiction in my childhood could even have imagined.

Ethics and Morality

Which brings me to #3 — our most sustained work — on ethics and morality. What does it mean to be a good worker, and to do good work in our time? As we’ve discovered, good work consists of three elements: It is technically excellent (the worker knows her stuff);  it is engaging (the worker looks forward to work and to its projects); and it is carried out in an ethical way (in a way that avoids unnecessary harms to others and in fact tries to achieve the core values of the profession).

Three Es:   

  • Excellence  
  • Engagement  
  • Ethics

Initially most of our studies of good work was with adult professionals; we studied well over 1000 good workers in some detail. But in recent years we have developed a curriculum on ethics for middle and secondary school that has been posted and has in fact been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese and its being used worldwide.    

The winning combination — Multiple Intelligences — mobilized for GOOD ENDS. But we realize that ethics and morality begin much younger — when as human beings we just think of I or Me, or We and Us. Or whether we take into account the needs and desires of others, the larger collectivity. And so, we have dubbed this work with very young children GOOD STARTS, en route to becoming Good Workers and Good Citizens.

I hope that you take away three formulations:


All of these lines of work could have been investigated in earlier times — that is CONTINUITY — but they can and should  be revisited  frequently in terms of what we know today and what we will learn tomorrow — that is CHANGE.

So that’s research—but what about teaching??

Let me talk a bit about my teaching (I) and OUR Teaching (WE). What’s continuous, what can and has changed? Forty years ago, I was hired to teach developmental psychology at  HGSE — for awhile I did  that myself. But then I joined forces with another developmental psychologist of a quite different stripe, Kurt Fischer. I focused on cognitive development; he focused on SEL— social and emotional development. I was more qualitative in methods; he was more quantitative. When we first taught, we each lectured for most of the time and then posed and answered questions. But then, around 1990, before most of you were born there was a new technology: Harvard introduces … video recording!

We both recorded all of our lectures in advance. (Believe me, it's no fun to stand alone and talk to the camera for dozens of hours.) But we did this because this freed class time for discussion and debate.

Then after a few years we were joined by David Rose — a clinically knowledgeable educational entrepreneur who had launched a nonprofit start-up called CAST, presumably known to many of you. 

CAST delivers a wonderful message: We should not speak of young people as learning-disabled; we should instead focus on curricula that are disabled — and enable these curricula to provide the best support to the range of learners.

The three of us taught together — no more lectures. We discussed themes with one another, then with class, then discussion continued with teaching fellows, some of whom are now outstanding scholars. This struck me as a great way to teach and to learn and not one that easily replicated online — walking up and down the aisles of Askwith Hall — and spilling over after class to the Gutman cafeteria or the sunken garden just behind you.

The heart of education is thoughtful teacher educators interacting with one another and with students — as old as Plato's Republic, as contemporary as computer-base flipped classes. To be sure, much of this can be replicated online even asynchronously, but just like listening to a concert on the radio cannot be equated with sitting in Symphony Hall, which cannot be equated with playing in the HR Orchestra (or with flying to Singapore or Sicily, stretching your eyes and ears so that you can enjoy Taylor Swift in person). So, too, team teaching and discussion that is live can and should remain for a long time at it best, it’s a FLOW or PEAK experience.

Change.  Email, blogs, asynchronous online classes, ChatGPT — they boggle an 80-year-old mind.

Continuity. What’s really important, what’s enduring, what methods, which messages, are tried-and-true and worth maintaining and sustaining.

So in my peroration — the concluding portion of a classical speech — let me state explicitly what I’ve sought to convey today. In any domain or Realm — and especially in one that will always be important to human life, whatever turns it takes — there will be both continuities (there is nothing new under the sun) and discontinuities/change (you can never step in the same river twice). 

I’ve suggested some physical, chemical and biological, and psychological continuities; and I have suggested as well the human developmental, cultural, and technological options that have arisen anew in our time … which, going forward, is now YOUR time.

Keep them all in mind, share them with friends and family, discuss them with co-workers at various stages and ranks, introduce them in age-appropriate  and domain-appropriate ways to your students.

Perhaps even make them the topic of a course — whether you see students in person every day, once a week, in a live virtual course, or perhaps a course prepared for Khan Academy or EdX.

Revisit them as much as you can — because what’s changing cannot be predicted. And if you reach the age and stage that I have reached — and I hope that you do and indeed extend beyond that age — share whatever wisdom you may have accumulated… and excuse  any foolishness.  

Let  me conclude with wise words from two  predecessors on this – the Harvard campus:

Sixty years ago, when I had just completed College, my own teacher — psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner — created a social studies course for middle schoolers. The course was organized around three questions: What makes human beings human? How did they become that way? How can they be made more so? It was these questions that brought me into education in the middle 1960s. I recommend that you ponder them yourself and discuss with others.

To repeat:

  • What makes human beings human?
  • How did they become that way?
  • How can they be made more so?

Finally, over a century ago, words of wisdom from American historian and professor Henry Adams:  “A teacher affects eternity,  he — and we would now say — they never know when their influence ends.”

Thank you, Class of 2024, and congratulations!!


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