Get Smart

By Debra Viadero — November 30, 1994 10 min read

Robert J. Sternberg, the noted Yale psychologist, often tells the story of Alice, Barbara, and Celia--three students once enrolled in the university’s graduate psychology program.

Alice, says Sternberg, was “the admission officer’s dream.” She entered the program with stellar test scores, outstanding college grades, and excellent letters of recommendation. But when it came time for Alice to start coming up with ideas of her own, she disappointed her professors.

Barbara, on the other hand, “was the admission officer’s nightmare,” according to Sternberg. She had good grades but abysmal test scores. Her letters of recommendation, however, described her as a creative young woman who could design and implement research with minimal guidance.

On paper, Celia fell somewhere in between. She was good on almost every traditional measure of success but not outstanding on any one. But rather than fall somewhere in the middle of her class at Yale, Celia proved to be a standout. Her talent was adapting well to the demands of her new environment and figuring out what was expected of her. She was, in other words, “street smart,” Sternberg says.

Most educators know an Alice, a Barbara, and a Celia. However, Sternberg coupled his experiences with these students with extensive readings in psychology and other fields and came up with what he calls his “triarchic theory of intelligence.” In simple terms, it holds that intellectual ability takes different shapes--not all of which are captured by the traditional means schools use to measure it.

In addition to Alice’s analytical kind of intelligence, Sternberg suggests, people also possess creative intelligence--which allows them to cope with novelty--and practical intelligence--which enables them to apply what they know to everyday situations.

Sternberg is neither the first nor the most well-known psychologist to suggest that intelligence takes on many different forms and functions. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences,” for example, has met with much more receptive audiences in schools across the country. Both views, though provocative, are not universally accepted.

Together, however, such theories have opened up broader ways for educators to think about what it means to be smart and how they can help students reach their fullest potential.

Bucking Tradition

The classical view holds that intelligence is an inborn trait that remains fixed over time and can be measured by means of an “intelligence quotient,” or “i.q.,” test.

Even as a boy, Sternberg questioned this long-held view. His disenchantment began when the school psychologist administered an i.q. test to his entire 5th-grade class. Seeing the other children move quickly from one item to another, Sternberg panicked and fared poorly on the exam.

When the test was administered the next year, Sternberg was sent from his 6th-grade classroom to take it with a group of 5th graders. Less intimidated by these younger students, he breezed through the test. His i.q. score improved.

“I guess a lot of what I do comes from my own insecurities,” the 44-year-old psychologist says now. In fact, he has spent the last 20-odd years exploring the subject.

Sternberg’s research has led him to suggest that intelligence is something that is not fixed but, rather, is mediated through the environment and can be taught and enhanced. And i.q. tests measure only one form of intelligence--a form that is key to school success but not necessarily key to success in the real world.

“Both Sternberg and Gardner are ‘contextualists,”’ says Stephen Ceci, a Cornell University psychologist. “Both believe what we call intelligence isn’t all inside the head. Much of it is outside the head, and the environment changes the way people deploy their intelligence.”

Gardner’s multiple-intelligence theory holds that intelligence takes seven different forms: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal.

Sternberg, however, suggests that musical ability and other such traits are really talents. And he presents a more multilayered approach to the concept.

“His theory is the most ambitious of all the theories of intelligence,” Ceci says, “because he took into consideration a number of different corpora of scientific knowledge--cognitive science, developmental psychology, psychometrics.”

Thinking Styles

Beyond his three intellectual abilities--analytical, creative, and practical--Sternberg says people have preferences in how they use those skills and how they govern their thought processes. This is what Sternberg calls his theory of “mental self-government.”

Like the different styles of political governments, people have different styles of thinking, he says. One individual, for example, might be “legislative” in that he or she tends to think in terms of creating, formulating, imagining, and planning new laws. Another’s tendencies may be more “executive” or concerned with implementing and doing. Still others may tend toward the “judicial” and prefer to evaluate and compare.

And just as there are four main forms of governments, there are four major ways that describe how individuals govern their thought processes. An individual with “monarchic” tendencies, for example, focuses on one thing or aspect at a time and sticks with it until it’s done. The individual who tends toward the “hierarchic” does well at assigning priorities to multiple tasks. The “oligarchic” form of mental self-government allows for dealing with multiple goals, all of which are equally important. And, finally, the “anarchic” thinking style favors multiple, flexible approaches and trying almost anything.

An individual’s form of mental self-government can also lean to the “conservative” or “liberal.” People may be “global” and focus on the forest, or “local” and focus on the trees. They might prefer to be “producers” or “consumers” of knowledge. They may also have a combination of thinking styles, and those inclinations may vary over time and in different contexts.

Sternberg says that schools, however, tend to reward only one kind of intellectual ability--analytical--and one kind of thinking style--the executive style.

What’s more, he says, teachers tend to reward those students whose intellectual styles best match their own. In one experiment designed to test that theory, Sternberg and his Yale colleague, Elena Grigorenko, selected 28 teachers who had strong tendencies toward various kinds of thinking styles from four different kinds of schools. They ranged from a Catholic high school to a public elementary school.

Using a questionnaire, the researchers first assessed the teachers’ thinking styles. Items on the survey asked the teachers, for example, to indicate the degree to which they agreed with such statements as “I want my students to develop their own ways of solving problems” or “I like to follow instructions when I am teaching.”

Students’ thinking styles were evaluated twice by different teachers using another questionnaire. Finally, students evaluated their own thinking styles using a third questionnaire developed for that purpose.

The researchers found that, in classrooms where teachers’ styles were more legislative, the most successful students were those with similar tendencies. Teachers with judicial styles tended to give the highest grades to judicial students, and the highest-achieving students in executive-minded teachers’ classes were themselves executive in orientation.

“It’s important for teachers to understand themselves,” Sternberg says. “You have to first understand your own take on the world.”

Learning Curves

Sternberg and other researchers have also completed preliminary studies looking at intelligence in a different light: Do students learn better when taught to their intellectual strengths?

To tackle that question, they focused on 65 11th and 12th graders who had been identified as gifted by means of test developed with the triarchic theory in mind. The students, who came from high schools across the mid-Atlantic region, were spending the summer at Yale to take a three-week general psychology course.

In the mornings, all students attended the same general lecture. In the afternoons, however, they went to sections taught in different ways. One section emphasized analytical thinking, another creative thinking, and a third practical thinking. Students were given assessments, however, that equally emphasized all three kinds of abilities.

As Sternberg’s hypothesis suggests, students judged to be gifted in creative and practical ways fared better when placed in sections that matched their abilities--even on test items that were not compatible for them. The analytically gifted students, however, did worse in sections suited to their skills. (Sternberg speculates that those students might have been less motivated because they had always done well in school.)

The basic message, Sternberg says, is this: “If you’re taught in a style that’s not a good fit, the conclusion you draw and--maybe your teacher as well--is that you’re not competent.”

Sternberg has continued to mine other aspects of his theory over the years. Working with Gardner, Wendy Williams, and other researchers at Yale and Harvard, he has perfected a program geared toward teaching middle school students how to hone their “tacit knowledge,” or practical intelligence. The program, known as “Practical Intelligence for Schools,” is scheduled to be published next year by HarperCollins.

“Teachers have a wide array of expectations for students, many of which are never explicitly verbalized,” he writes in a 1991 paper on the subject. “If students cannot figure out what these implicit expectations are, their performance in school may suffer year after year.”

Working with Todd Lubart, Sternberg has also developed a theory of creativity. A book on that subject is due out later this year. “When you look at the importance of creativity in the world of work versus the world of schools, it’s pretty discrepant,” he says. “It’s not that teachers don’t value creativity; they just don’t expect it.”

Measuring Success

Sternberg’s explorations of intelligence and other human qualities have been chronicled in hundreds of articles and books. He was named one of the 100 top scientists in the country in 1984 by Science Digest and was selected as an outstanding American under 40 by Esquire magazine two years later. He headed the American Psychological Association last year and has won 10 other distinguished awards from his peers.

But for all the accolades, Sternberg is not the household name in schools that Gardner has become.

Ceci says that’s because Gardner has been more deliberate in translating his theory for teachers and promoting it. “He is most mindful of the needs of educators,” the Cornell psychologist says.

Gardner says he has less patience with what he calls the ground rules of psychology. “I’m a psychologist but don’t identify myself with the sort of intelligence mafia,” he says. In fact, Gardner eschews intelligence testing of any sort, triarchic or otherwise.

But Gardner doesn’t dismiss the work of his colleague. “I think it is in the workplace where he is going to begin to have some influence,” he says of Sternberg, “and his work on styles could have some effect in creating more congenial classrooms.”

“But, from the point of view of the average teacher,” Gardner adds, “the differences between us are less than the differences between us and the old view. We are united in opposition to a view that is 100 years old.”

Still, Sternberg’s particular ideas on intellectual development are striking a chord with some educators. One is Betsy Ratner, a teacher of gifted elementary students in Milford, Conn.

“I think his theory is more simplified,” she says. “When I put it Bob’s way in three parts, it’s just more simplistic for me to comprehend how it all comes together.”

But, from his vantage point just beyond the educational mainstream, the Yale psychologist also says he is wary of what he sees as the “bandwagon approach” that school reforms are taking across the nation.

“Now there’s a big rush to performance assessment, and it really drives me nuts because who are you benefiting now?” Sternberg asks. “You’re benefiting the kids who are more legislative, more liberal.”

“What you’d ideally do as a teacher is teach in different ways and help kids to understand what they do well,” he says, “but also to understand the things they don’t do well and work with students to try to figure out strategies for compensation and remediation.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Get Smart