Robert J. Sternberg
New Haven, CT
Underlying our work is the view that abilities represent a form of developing expertise—in other words, that abilities are flexible and modifiable and can be developed into expertise, no matter the starting level. Ability tests can only measure developed levels of competencies. They never show all of which a student is capable.
We believe that many schools metaphorically shine a spotlight on just one kind of student—the student who excels in conventional memory and analytical abilities. Yet, other kinds of abilities—in particular, creative and practical abilities—are at least as important for success in life. Moreover, with proper teaching, they can be important for success in school, too. In other words, many students can achieve at substantially higher levels than they currently do if they are taught in a way that matches, at least in part, their pattern of abilities.
The primary goal of our previous 5-year research project was to compare the efficacy of the theory of successful intelligence to alternative models for teaching. Teaching for successful intelligence involves teaching students analytically, creatively, and practically in order to help them to capitalize on strengths and, simultaneously, to compensate for or correct weaknesses. The alternative models are teaching for critical thinking and teaching primarily for memory. We have done studies now at the elementary and secondary levels in all academic subject-matter areas. Our outcome measures are both conventional achievement tests, as well as performance assessments examining analytical, creative, and practical kinds of achievement. We have tested several thousand students in diverse settings.
- Our main finding is that teaching for successful intelligence is more effective than alternative models of teaching. So far, this finding holds up regardless of grade level, subject-matter area, socioeconomic level, ethnic identity, or type of community (rural, suburban, urban).
- A particularly interesting result is that we get this finding even if the outcome measure is memory-based. In other words, we find that even if one’s goal is simply to enhance memory learning, teaching for successful intelligence still is the most effective form of teaching. This is because teaching for successful intelligence enables students to (a) capitalize on strengths, (b) compensate for or remediate weaknesses, (c) encode material in multiple ways to enhance access to that material, (d) rehearse material to a deeper level, and (e) motivates teachers and students more.
- Indeed, in affective assessments, we have found that, on average, both teachers and students are very satisfied with our methods of teaching. So, we not only get superior instructional outcomes, but excellent affective outcomes as well.
- It is further of great interest that, when we measure students’ abilities, although White, middle- to upper middle class students turn in better performances on the analytical ability measures, other students (of diverse economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds) do as well and sometimes better on measures of creative and practical abilities. We believe that this is because they come from backgrounds that force them to develop their creative and practical skills, whereas other students may have the luxury of focusing on analytical (and more academically oriented abilities).
- Sometimes, students do not show their abilities because they believe they will not be valued. In one study, for example, we encouraged students in their projects to think creatively or practically. Our concern was that students often do not think creatively (or practically) because they believe that such thinking will not be rewarded. We found that students indeed showed higher levels of creative and practical thinking when encouraged to think in these ways. So students may have the abilities, but find themselves in classroom settings that do not elicit the abilities.