05/26/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Good Project Gets Better

The words good work project written on a chalkboard

At the close of the last century, after a year of working together at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon began work on what they called The Humane Creativity Project — a study on how one can be both creative and humane.

In time, the project morphed into a more focused exploration, The Good Work Project, which looked specifically at ethical decision-making in the fields of genetics and journalism. At the beginning of this century, the three researchers collaborated on a book, “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet,” which essentially presents the results of the research into the fields of genetics and journalism and offers the authors’ insights into ethical decision-making in the workplace more broadly.

At the time, they described the challenge this way: “Rapid technological innovations, new forms of ownership, and changing social expectations on the part of both producers and consumers make it difficult for any of us holding a job to live up to the values of the domain, the values of society, and our own system of values.”

We mention this now because the book and the ongoing project strike us as more important than ever. So many of us in this country wake each morning having to ask essential questions about what “good work” means, what it looks like in a nation driven too often by the short-term, what-ever-it-takes logic of the free-market economy — or more generally in a culture that willingly downplays professional ethics.

In this landscape, it has been inspiring to see the way the initial Good Work Project has grown — expanding steadily from a conversation among three well-respected professionals into a worldwide exploration of what we mean by “good work” and sparking further research and the development of valuable resources, college courses, and more.

Among the college courses arising from the project are Colby College’s “Meaningful Work in a Meaningful Life,” New York University’s  “Good Work in a Global Context,” and Brown University’s “Entrepreneurship and Good Work” — all focused on helping students think proactively about the challenges of ethical decision-making in the various professions.

Researchers have launched a number of important spin-off projects, including The Youth Purpose Project, the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project, the Trust and Trustworthiness Project, the Good Play Project and perhaps our favorite, The Family Dinner Project focused on “food, fun, and conversation about things that matter.”

A number of books — including “Good Mentoring” (Jossey-Bass) and “Youth, Ethics, and the New Digital Media” (MIT Press) — have risen from this project as well, most focused on, as Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon put it in their book, doing work of “expert quality that benefits the broader society.”

In 2003, the first Good Work Project Conference was held in Copenhagen. In 2013, Noble and Greenough School, an independent school in Dedham, Mass., hosted the first domestic Good Work Project Conference. The Good Work team has evolved over time, but it continues to offer workshops through Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero Classroom and Future of School summer institutes.

(Project Zero, by the way, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It started as an investigation into improving arts education and gradually expanded to include investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural thinking, and ethics. In its own right, it’s an excellent example of good work.)

The project, which is now just known at The Good Project, has also developed toolkits and curricula (available for free). The Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum arose from a collaboration with Common Sense Media to examine the question of how young people can be ethical participants in online spaces. The Good Collaboration Toolkit is designed to help all of us who engage in collaborative work to do so in a way that leads to quality outcomes in an ethical fashion. The Good Work Toolkit is designed to engage individuals — across the spectrum of school, college, and the professions — in conversations about how to produce high-quality, responsible, and honest work. The Elementary Good Work Toolkit, still under development, will bring this latter conversation to younger schoolchildren.

The arc of the project — from the Humane Creativity Project to today’s Good Project — is not something one could have mapped out at the start. It has been a fluid process, with the inevitable peaks and valleys. At times, it looked like it might slip quietly to the sidelines. But with the urging of a Harvard colleague, Gardner says, the project has taken on a new life in recent years — “finding its third wind.” Under the guidance of a new generation of leaders, including Lynn Barendsen and Danny Mucinskas, the project continues to examine the question of good work, citizenship, and more.

In their book, Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon make it clear that they believe societal changes lie within us. They also make it clear that the best work comes when we can combine “the full development of individual potentials with commitment to a greater whole.”

For us, this latter point is the point. At the moment, focusing on good work and citizenship feels a bit countercultural, but in the best sense. Our hope is that it becomes less counter and more mainstream in the years to come. To that end, we are grateful for the educators we know who care enough to carve out time and engage students in conversations about what it means to be smart and good, and who engage colleagues in the ever-evolving conversation about what good work looks like in schools today and in the years to come.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor in the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences and founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University. His books include the bestselling “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” “Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years,” “The Evolving Self,” “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” and “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.”

William Damon is a professor of education and Director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. For the past 20 years, Damon has written widely on moral development at all ages of human life. His books include “Self-Understanding in Childhood and Adolescence,” “The Moral Child,” “Greater Expectations,” and “The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing.”

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior director of the Harvard Project. The author of 30 books translated into 32 languages, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be adequately assessed by standard psychometric instruments.

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