Building Better Thinkers

Living in a world that so honors science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—often called the STEM disciplines—many of us desire a more balanced approach.   I found a kindred spirit in social scientist Howard Gardner, whose book Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business Press, 2008) suggests that in order to live a well-rounded life, we need art, literature, and philosophy as well.   

To achieve this balance, Gardner proposes the nurturing of five actions of the mind, calling them essential in gaining future credibility.  Although he did not present them in this order, so arranged, they create the acronym CREDS: creating, respectful, ethical, disciplined, and synthesizing.  Listing the habits of mind in this order makes no value judgment about a hierarchy of importance; it simply provides a mnemonic device to make the habits easy to recall.  In building a case for nurturing these habits of mind, Gardner speaks to technological and social change.  Because of computer search engines, individuals no longer need to memorize a pile of facts.  Instead, the contemporary world and workplace needs people with the ability to survey, organize, and apply a cornucopia of information. 

Fostering critical thinking or nurturing habits of mind means crafting opportunities for students to find answers, solve problems, and make decisions in the same way that practitioners in the disciplines do.  Gardner’s five minds—creating, respectful, ethical, disciplined, synthesizing—span the cognitive spectrum and promise competence; the use of all the habits fosters critical thinking.  This critical thinking, these habits of mind, is not something a system can teach, but educators can design and structure curriculums that facilitate such thinking.  From their own professional journals and discipline-specific literature/articles, educators will likely find topics with relevance and currency to nurture CREDS thinking.

After reading Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner, I synthesized five definitions from Gardner’s theory.  According to Gardner, the creating mind poses unfamiliar questions, conjures fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers, posits new ideas, and considers as many angles as possible.  Creative thinkers are lateral thinkers with the capacity to shift frameworks, assume alternate identities, and devise ingenious solutions.  Innovative, creators will strike out in unfamiliar directions and offer fresh insight.  Motivated by uncertainty, surprise, and disequilibrium, the creator will seek not to order what is known but to extend knowledge, to ruffle the contours of a genre, to pursue new visions.

Next, responding sympathetically and constructively, the respectful mind notes differences between groups but avoids stereotypes and caricatures.  Individuals motivated by respect offer the benefit of the doubt to all human beings and avoid thinking in group terms.  They consider alternate positions and examine rivals to personal positions.  Their search to understand and to work with groups and ideas that differ from their own extends beyond political correctness so that the respectful thinker will respond sympathetically and constructively.  Considering a variety of opinions and viewpoints, they often challenge the status quo.

Tolerance embodies the third habit, the ethical mind, which considers the needs and desires of society.  Susceptible to noticing unprincipled values, the ethically minded will assess character behavior through the lens of “goodness,” drawing object lessons from instances of compromised work or violation of acceptable/moral codes of behavior.  They will bear witness to destructive behaviors and to connotations of goodness and best efforts. Ethically minded persons focus on fulfilling a role that will improve the quality of life and living.  Sensing an obligation to monitor what others are doing, they may call them to account or make references to an individual’s role as a citizen oriented towards succeeding generations.  Stewards of a domain, they think in terms of missions, models, and mirrors with little focus on the self.

Gardner’s disciplined mind shows evidence of training to perfect a skill.  It will identify truly important topics or concepts and approach those topics through diverse entry points.  Disciplined minds may focus on and sustain one argument but will represent it thoroughly to exemplify understanding.  Facts are minimized in favor of sense-making, but these thinkers will search for how something operates and will share methods and findings.  They will apply themselves diligently, validating any interpretations with textual references or facts and providing evidence of deep reading. 

The final habit, the synthesizing mind, captures the ability to raise and address the largest questions.  Taking information from disparate sources, it incorporates new findings and delineates new dilemmas.  Inferring intended emotion when it has not been explicitly mentioned is another ability of the synthesizing mind.  Synthesizers often bring concepts to life by invoking metaphors; by capturing wisdom in short, memorable phrases; or by marshaling concepts into theories.  From their reading, even a first draft response frequently contains a crucial nucleus of the original version.  With a proclivity to connect, synthesizers apply the tools of understanding and engage in the boldest forms of interdisciplinary connection making.  They discern links and will reference other sources; these will be the creators of hyperlinks in their blog posts as they seek to generate several representations of the same idea or concept.  Synthesizing thinkers will also provide a succinct summary of points of agreement and disagreement; they will evaluate sources and strive for what Gardner calls multiperspectivism, a recognition of and appreciation for different analytic perspectives.  Ultimately, the synthesizer seeks order, equilibrium, and closure. 

If Gardner’s five habits of mind—creating, respectful, ethical, disciplined, and synthesizing (CREDS)—in fact give credentials to youth, educators might consider explicitly identifying these CREDS and then fostering them through reading, writing, and critical analysis experiences.  Well-designed classroom activities that foster transactional writing, experimentation, problem-solving, and intellectual negotiation might facilitate the critical thinking described by the CREDS habits.  Also, during text and materials selection, teachers might survey texts and materials for their potential for both affective and cognitive appeal—to both motivate reading and to stimulate the intellect, so as to assist CREDS habit development.   

Research suggests that when classroom activities include prompts to stimulate nuanced and complex thinking and when learners negotiate perspectives with others, they emerge as more competent in dialogic exchange and in CREDS habits.  Such habits may ensure future credibility for our students while also giving them the balanced mindset essential for survival in an inter-connected world. 

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