Howard Gardner, GoodPlay Project Explore Ethical Decision-Making Online

October 24, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Students

Earlier this fall, Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education led a panel of experts, teens, teachers, and students in a town hall discussion, “Shaping Our Digital World: You Have the Power” at Brookline High School. The discussion focused on the ethical decisions that arise for today’s youth while growing up online. Panelists also encouraged youth to actively change the ‘digital world’ they live in.

“In our digital era, many of our institutions need to be refashioned,” Gardner said. “We hope that our research will suggest how best to launch the process of reinvention.” 

Gardner, a renowned scholar and author of 25 books, is perhaps best known for his theory on multiple intelligences, which argues that there is not one, but several, profiles of intelligence. He recently explained this theory to Boston Globe writer Karen Campbell:

Our language suggests that intelligence is a single thing, and that we can rank people on one scale — from smartest to dumbest. Research in recent decades suggests that human beings have a number of relatively independent abilities, which I call the ‘multiple intelligences.’ Johnny might be ‘smart’ with language and understanding other people, but not good in finding his way around an unfamiliar environment or solving mathematical problems. Sally might have the opposite profile of intelligences.

Digital media, he thinks, offers a creative platform for individuals to follow their strengths and interests in a self-directed discovery. Ultimately, we could tap this self-directed learning to create a truer gauge of one’s ability than, say, standardized test scores.

Gardner would follow his own interests in forming Harvard University’s GoodWork Project with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and William Damon. The project seeks out work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners, and figures out how to add more good work to the world. Essentially it is asking: What are the values that keep professionals of all stripes doing the kind of work that benefits society? Over the course of a decade or more, he and the GoodWork collaborators have talked with more than 1,200 workers in journalism, genetics, theater, business, K-12 education, higher education, law, medicine, and philanthropy. They published their early findings in “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.”

Gardner has since spearheaded the GoodPlay Project, along with Research Director and Principal Investigator at Harvard’s Project Zero Carrie James. GoodPlay explores the ethics behind kids’ activities online. “We seek to understand how young people conceptualize their participation in virtual worlds and the ethical considerations that guide their conduct,” reads the GoodPlay mission statement.

The project outlines five areas that are both relevant to today’s digital age and involve ethical decisions:

  • Identity
  • Privacy
  • Ownership
  • Authorship
  • Credibility
  • Participation

If they sound familiar it’s because Gardner and GoodPlay were integral in helping us design our Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum.

The GoodPlay Project also recently collaborated with Project New Media Literacies to develop a casebook of curricular materials for high school students called “Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World” to encourage teens to reflect on the ethical implications behind their decision-making online.

In its current phase, researchers are studying the ethical perspectives of youth ages 10-to-14, as well as the adults who influence young people’s lives. “Good participation” is another facet of their current research, which focuses on the young people who are using digital media to achieve civic and political goals. 

But it all sprang from his initial GoodWork project.

“Good Work is about how we can help young people live a life of good work and good citizenship,” Gardner told C.M. Rubin on the Huffington Post’s education blog. For too long we’ve been dominated by the three Ms: money, markets, and me, he argues. Instead, he told Rubin, “We, and the youth whom we hope to inspire, should strive to live by the “three E’s,” he said:

  • Excellence – the worker knows their work and studies the latest knowledge and techniques to maintain that work at the highest standards
  • Engagement – people should feel inclined to engage with the world around them and to also be personally engaging
  • Ethics – people should carry out their work in a way that is responsible and moral

“And then,” he writes in GoodWork: Theory and Practice, “we finish the job by flipping the image one more time to yield a W for We.”

Gardner goes on to apply this lens to the current U.S. educational system, and states that certain pockets of the country are lacking in at least one of the previous sectors:

I would say that in the inner city, the issue has been Excellence, and we're spending plenty of money trying to get that right. In the heartland, the problem has been about Engagement. Kids go to school and college and get through, but they don't seem to really care about using their minds. School doesn't have the kind of long term positive impact that it should. The upper middle class children who populate the suburbs have weak ethical muscles. On one calculus, they may be the "best and the brightest", but they have been dominated by Money, Markets, and Me. To my mind, that's been the wrong dominating figure in America over the past years.

Gardner’s solution? “Heal ourselves.” Gardner suggests that we, as a country, need to create an ethical foundation, and subsequently reassess how we value education. Most important, American citizens need to choose leaders who embody the successes we want to see as a nation. 

“We need to go beyond fear and greed - we need to re-establish a sense of trust, and to identify persons, practices, and policies that are truly admirable,” said Gardner. “Powerful leadership needs to send new and different messages about the definition of success. I don't see how this can be done without the media - traditional and informal - and without gutsy leaders.”

Reminds me of the adage, “be the change you want to see in the world.” While this may sound like a lofty goal, it is certainly one that is worth working toward one ethical decision at a time.