Howard Gardner

 

On his book A Synthesizing Mind: A Memoir from the Creator of Multiple Intelligences Theory

Cover Interview of February 03, 2021

The wide angle

In recent years, especially in the United States, our schools have focused largely on the mastery of information, which can be probed in a short answer assessment. This is exactly the kind of information which is readily available on search engines or can be instantly computed on an inexpensive handheld device.

Except in select educational institutions—typically ones available only to privileged families—there is little effort to train synthesizing, or even to put it on the map as an important educational goal. From my perspective, genuine synthesis begins with an important issue or puzzle that one wants to elucidate. Of course, one should first ascertain what already exists on the topic—and if the available synthesis seems adequate, move on to another puzzle.

When one discovers—or is assigned—a topic where an adequate synthesis does not exist, the real work begins (and, optimally, that work will be stimulating and enjoyable). One has to search widely for relevant information and insights. Search engines are invaluable allies, but they have no boundaries. Accordingly, one needs personal discipline as well as knowledge of relevant scholarly disciplines. More importantly—and this is central to my argument—one needs ways of organizing the accumulating information.

Organizing and reorganizing information, numbers, data, visualizations, etc.—that constitutes the heart of synthesis. Here is where we draw on our multiple intelligences—no two people will synthesize in exactly the same way. (In my case, I discovered, to my surprise, that the musical and naturalist intelligences play an important role in my own synthesizing efforts.) One uses pictures, tables, charts, graphs, equations, mental models, mind maps, metaphors, stories, melodies, riddles, epigrams—whatever works!

Evidently the synthesis needs to work for you—that’s why you have undertaken it. (Unless it’s simply a homework assignment!) But you alone are not enough. You need to try out the synthesis on others—those friendly to your project, and those more critical or skeptical. And a cycle of revision and perhaps even reformulation may be necessary.

But life is short. Eventually the synthesis needs to become public (hence, my thirty books, including the one I’m discussing here) and you discover where it succeeds and where it falls short. (In my case, that discovery has come from book reviews as well as critiques from my four children.

I have come to know and understand synthesis chiefly from a life of scholarly research and writing. But the synthesizing mind is essential as well for political leaders, for managers and executives, for organizers of any complex activity—to paraphrase a character from the French playwright Moliere—“I “have been synthesizing all my life without being aware of it!” On my website, asynthesizingmind.com, I am beginning to analyze the synthesizing capacities of individuals who are not primarily scholars.