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A Waste of Talent

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Suppose you take a job in a new school district. It has everything you have always wanted--good students, ample facilities, supportive colleagues, generous pay. Then, at the first faculty meeting, you are handed a test that has to be administered to the students on the first day of school. The test will be used to track students into ability groups, you are told. The test measures aptitude in penmanship. You are further informed that teachers are expected to emphasize good penmanship in their teaching and that assessment of academic progress is expected to emphasize penmanship as well. Such an idea is preposterous, no?

Substitute the words "memory and analytical abilities" for "penmanship" and you have a pretty accurate description of the U.S. system of schooling. It's a closed system which recognizes, values, and rewards students who can more easily memorize and analyze, but not those who are creative or practical. And all of our children--the analytical as well as the creative and the practical--are going to pay a price for that. In today's rapidly changing world, workers who are not creative, flexible, and ready to see things in new ways quickly find themselves out of date, and often out of a job.

I am not arguing that we should toss facts and analysis onto the trash heap of history and devote ourselves to nurturing only our children's creative and practical abilities. Nor am I suggesting that we should individualize our instruction to the learning style of each student. I am arguing that we should regard memory, analytic ability, creativity, and practicality as at least equally important in our teaching and assessment of children.

When we teach or assess for memory, we are asking students to recall (a) who did something, (b) what was done, (c) when it was done, (d) where it was done, or (e) how it was done. When we teach or assess for analysis, we instead are asking students to (a) analyze, (b) compare, (c) evaluate, (d) judge, or (e) assess. When we teach or assess for creativity, we are asking students to (a) create, (b) invent, (c) imagine, (d) suppose, or (e) design. Finally, when we teach or assess for practical use, we are asking students to (a) apply, (b) use, (c) implement, (d) put into practice, or (e) show in use.

We can teach at any grade level and in any subject-matter area in a way that values and enables students to use all four of these kinds of abilities. By teaching all students in all four ways, each student finds at least some aspects of the instruction and assessment to be comfortable and compatible with his or her preferred way of learning and other aspects of the instruction to be challenging and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. Teaching in all four ways to all students not only renders the teacher's job easier, but also more manageable. No teacher could individualize instruction and assessment to the ability pattern of each student in a large class. Any teacher can teach in a way that meets the needs of all students.

Sounds good, but does it work?

I am arguing that we should regard memory, analytic ability, creativity, and practicality as at least equally important in our teaching and assessment of children.

We did a study at Yale University to address that very question. My collaborators were Michel Ferrari, Pamela Clinkenbeard, and Elena Grigorenko. High school students all across the United States as well as some from abroad were asked to nominate students for a Special Summer Program in introductory psychology to be taught at Yale. All nominated students who were potentially interested in attending took a test, administered in their school, which was designed to measure analytical, creative, and practical abilities.

A total of 199 students were chosen who fit into one of five ability patterns: high analytical, high creative, high practical, high balanced (high in all three abilities), or low balanced (low in all three abilities). The students were then placed into one of four instruction treatments. All four featured a morning lecture which balanced activities oriented towards memory, analytical, creative, and practical learning and thinking and all used the same introductory psychology textbook. In the afternoons, though, students were assigned to discussion sections that variously emphasized either memory, analytical, creative, or practical learning and thinking.

We had many findings from the study, some of which were quite unexpected. For example, we found that the high-analytic group comprised mostly white, middle- to upper-middle-class students from well-known, "good" schools. Our high-creative and high-practical groups were more diverse racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and educationally. Our high-balanced group was in between. This pattern suggests that, when we expand the range of abilities that we test for, we also expand the range of the kinds of students we identify as "smart" and decrease the number of children who get left behind by the educational system, including many minority students.

We also found that students whose instructional treatment matched their pattern of abilities performed significantly better in the course than did students whose instructional treatment mismatched their pattern of abilities. Even by partial-matching instruction to abilities, therefore, students can improve their achievement. In a more recent study in collaboration with Bruce Torff and Elena Grigorenko, we found that when students are taught analytically, creatively, and practically, they achieve at higher levels, regardless of ability pattern. Such teaching enables them to capitalize on their strengths and to compensate for and correct their weaknesses.

Today, everyone recognizes that penmanship is not the be-all and end-all for success, whether in school or in life. Sooner or later, we will all recognize that neither are the abilities measured by IQ. We need to open up and broaden our system of schooling. In a pluralistic society, we cannot afford to have a monistic conception of intelligence and schooling. It is just a waste of talent. Creatively and practically oriented thinkers get burned by the current educational system at three crucial points--in the assessment of the abilities, in instruction, and in the assessment of their achievement. The result is that a system appears to be valid because it is closed and self-perpetuating. We need to break out of this loop and adopt policies that will enable students with all kinds of strengths to fulfill their educational and, later, their career potential.


Robert J. Sternberg is the IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He is the author of Successful Intelligence (Plume, 1997). This is a condensed version of issues explored in a larger manuscript appearing in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and the Law.

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