Education Opinion

Still Smarting

By Robert J. Sternberg — January 01, 1997 8 min read
Branded with a low IQ, a young psychologist explores why.

Jack, who considers himself the smartest in his class, likes to make fun of Irvin, the boy he has identified as the stupidest. Jack pulls aside his friend Tom and says, “You want to see what ‘stupid’ means, Tom? Watch this. . . . Hey, Irvin. Here are two coins. Take the one you want. It’s yours.”

Irvin looks at the two coins, a nickel and a dime, for a while and then selects the nickel.

Jack laughs. “Go ahead, Irv, take it.”

Irvin takes the larger coin and walks away. An adult who watched the transaction from a distance walks up to Irvin and gently points out that the dime is worth more than the nickel, even though it is smaller, and that Irvin has just cost himself 5 cents.

“Oh, I know that,” replies Irvin, “but, if I picked the dime, Jack would never ask me to choose between the two coins again. This way, he’ll keep asking me again and again. I’ve already collected over a dollar from him, and all I have to do is keep choosing the nickel.”

This apocryphal story points out something we already intuitively know—that someone can be slow in school but think well outside it, and vice versa. The hoary question “How can someone so smart be so dumb?” reminds us that people can be good or bad thinkers, regardless of how well they may do in a school setting. I found this out the hard way.

My interest in broadening our means of identifying potential high performers in life and not just in school came from an experience in my own career. Because of my wretched performance on IQ tests as a child, I became very interested in psychology. By the time I was in 7th grade, I decided I wanted to study intelligence. I did just that. In carrying out a project on the development of mental tests, I constructed my own test. I also found in my hometown library the Stanford-Binet intelligence test and decided to give it to some of my classmates.

My first subject was a girl I was romantically interested in. I figured I would break the ice by giving her the test. Not a good idea. The relationship terminated at that point; indeed, it never even got started.

My next choice—a boy I had known from Cub Scouts—was also a mistake. I thought he was a good friend, but he was a fink. He told his mother I had given him the test. She told the junior high school guidance counselor, who reported me to the head school psychologist. The whole affair came to an unpleasant conclusion when the psychologist took me out of social studies class and, after bawling me out for 50 minutes, threatened to personally burn the book containing the test if I ever brought it to school again. He suggested that if I wanted to continue studying intelligence, I should limit my test subjects to rats.

In college, I was still eager to study intelligence. I knew I had a low IQ, and I wanted to figure out why I was so stupid. There is a not-so-hidden point here. Once students get low scores on aptitude tests such as an IQ test, the SAT, or the ACT, they come to think of themselves as dumb. Even if they achieve, they may view themselves as achieving in spite of their being dumb. Society may view them in the same way. They may come to be labeled overachievers, people whose achievements seem to exceed their intelligence and who ought to be pushed down in size.

Some societies don’t value outstanding performance or, at least, performance that stands out. In Norway, they speak of the Law of Jante, according to which if someone’s head sticks up over the heads of others, then it should be cut off. This same mentality is rather common in other parts of the world and is not unknown here. Many people grow up in families or go to schools where what is valued most is not standing out from the crowd—at least in unconventional ways. Too often, conform-ity is the norm.

Pursuing my interest in psychology as a freshman at Yale University, I got off to a bad start. I got a C grade in the introductory psychology course, scarcely an indication of a bright future in the field. It was further confirmation that my IQ scores were right and I didn’t have the ability. My psychology professor apparently agreed. Handing back a test to me one day, he commented that there was a famous Sternberg in psychology (Saul), and it appeared there wasn’t about to be another. I took the message to heart and decided to switch to another major. I chose mathematics because I thought it was useful. The choice turned out to be fortunate. After receiving a worse grade in the introductory course for math majors than in introductory psychology, I decided to switch back to psychology. And I did well in the upper-level courses.

I have now been a psychologist for 21 years, and one thing of which I am certain is that I have never—not even once—had to do in the profession what I needed to do to get an A in the introductory course or in some of the other courses. In particular, I’ve never had to memorize a book or lecture. If I can’t remember something, I just look it up. The way schools set things up, however, they reward with A’s the students who are good memorizers, not just in college but also at other levels, as well. In defense of our schools, the educational systems in many other countries are worse in this regard.

The problem is that in psychology and many other fields the demands of the work bear little or no resemblance to the demands of the training needed to enter the field. For example, my son once said to me that he hated history and wished he never had to take another history course. I said to him that I, personally, had always found history interesting, and I wondered why he didn’t. His response was that he hated memorizing dates. Indeed, memorizing dates, battles, and historical documents is what many history courses emphasize. But historians are not experts in their fields by virtue of being walking encyclopedias of dates or battle names or historical documents.

In general, the same is true in the sciences. Often what gets an A is memorizing formulas or solving problems in textbooks and on tests. But scientists don’t memorize formulas for a living, nor do they solve textbook problems. Rather, they generate problems for themselves. Indeed, to a large extent, they are judged on the importance of the problems they decide to study.

I went to my son’s English class one Parents’ Day. They were studying the Odyssey. A good book—actually, a great one. The teacher read a quote, and the students had to identify who said it or what was happening at the time. For students who loved to memorize, that was just fine. But no one who excelled in that class was showing the talents of either a writer or a literary critic. And among those who did not do so well was, for all we could tell, one who had the potential talent to be the next Shakespeare. Unlikely, perhaps, but the teacher would never know given the way the class was taught.

The danger is that we overlook many talented people in any field of study because of the way we measure intelligence, and some of the best potential psychologists, biologists, historians, or whatever may get derailed because they are made to think they don’t have the talent to pursue their interests. Clearly, we need to teach in a way that recognizes, develops, and rewards the three aspects of successful intelligence that are important to pursuing a career in any field.

Two boys are walking in a forest. They are quite different. The first boy’s teachers think he is smart, his parents think he is smart, and, as a result, he thinks he is smart. He has good test scores, good grades, and other good credentials that will get him far in his scholastic life. Few people consider the second boy smart. His test scores are nothing great, his grades aren’t so good, and his other credentials are in general marginal. At best, people would call him shrewd or street-smart. As the two boys walk along in the forest, they encounter a problem—a huge, furious, hungry-looking grizzly bear, charging straight at them. The first boy, calculating that the grizzly bear will overtake them in 17.3 seconds, panics. In this state, he looks at the second boy, who is calmly taking off his hiking boots and putting on his jogging shoes.

The first boy says to the second boy, “You must be crazy. There is no way we are going to outrun that grizzly bear!”

The second boy replies, “That’s true. But all I have to do is outrun you!”

Both boys in that story are smart, but they are smart in different ways. The first boy quickly analyzed the problem, but that was as far as his intelligence took him. The second boy spotted the problem, but he also came up with a creative and practical solution. He displayed successful intelligence.

To be successfully intelligent is to think well in three different ways: analytically, creatively, and practically. Typically, only analytical intelligence is valued on tests and in the classroom. Yet the style of intelligence that schools most readily recognize as smart may well be less useful to many students in their adult lives than creative and practical intelligence.

The three aspects of successful intelligence are related. Analytical thinking is required to solve problems and to judge the quality of ideas. Creative intelligence is required to formulate good problems and ideas in the first place. Practical intelligence is needed to use the ideas and their analyses in an effective way in one’s everyday life.

Successful intelligence is most effective when it balances all three of its analytical, creative, and practical aspects. It is more important to know when and how to use these aspects of successful intelligence than just to have them. Successfully intelligent people don’t just have abilities, they reflect on when and how to use them effectively.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Still Smarting