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March 1997 | Volume 54 | Number 6
How Children Learn
Robert J. Sternberg
A Yale study, based on the premise that intelligence has analytical, creative, and practical aspects, shows that if schools start valuing all three, they may find that thousands of kids are smarter than they think.
The most widely circulated newspaper in Connecticut recently carried a story on the meteoric rise of the president of one of the major banks in the state. I might have passed over the story with a glance had the name of the bank president not caught my eye. He was someone with whom I had gone to school from 1st grade right up through high school. What especially caught my attention, though, was that he had been a C student—someone who didn't seem to have much to offer.
Were the bank president an isolated case it might not be cause for alarm. But one cannot help wondering how many such students conclude that they really do not have much to contribute—in school or in the world at large—and so never try.
Our system of education is, to a large degree, a closed system. Students are tested and classified in terms of two kinds of abilities—their ability to memorize information and, to a lesser extent, their ability to analyze it. They are also taught and assessed in ways that emphasize memory and analysis. As a result, we label students who excel in these patterns of ability as smart or able. We may label students who are weaker in these abilities as average or even slow or stupid.
Students may, however, excel in other abilities that are at least as important as those we now reward. Creativity and the practical application of information—ordinary common sense or "street smarts"—are two such abilities that go unappreciated and unrecognized. They are simply not considered relevant to conventional education.
The ability tests we currently use, whether to measure intelligence or achievement or to determine college admissions, also value memory and analytical abilities. These tests predict school performance reasonably well. They do so because they emphasize the same abilities that are emphasized in the classroom.
Thus, students who excel in memory and analytical abilities get good grades. Practically oriented learners, however, who are better able to learn a set of facts if they can see its relevance to their own lives, lose out. (Indeed, many teachers and administrators are themselves practical learners who simply tune out lectures or workshops they consider irrelevant to them.)
The consequences of this system are potentially devastating. Through grades and test scores, we may be rewarding only a fraction of the students who should be rewarded. Worse, we may be inadvertently disenfranchising multitudes of students from learning. In fact, when researchers have examined the lives of enormously influential people, whether in creative domains (Gardner 1993), practical domains (Gardner 1995), or both, they have found that many of these people had been ordinary—or even mediocre—students.
At any grade level and in any subject, we can teach and assess in a way that enables students to use all four abilities (Sternberg 1994, Sternberg and Spear-Swerling 1996. See also Sternberg and Williams 1996, Williams et al. 1996). In other words, we can ask students to
In physical education, for example, competitors need to learn and remember various strategies for playing games, analyze their opponents' strategies, create their own strategies, and implement those strategies on the playing field. Figure 1 presents some examples of how teachers can do this in language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.
Type of Skill
Remember what a gerund is or what the name of Tom Sawyer's aunt was.
Compare the function of a gerund to that of a participle, or compare the personality of Tom Sawyer to that of Huckleberry Finn.
Invent a sentence that effectively uses a gerund, or write a very short story with Tom Sawyer as a character.
Find gerunds in a newspaper or magazine article and describe how they are used, or say what general lesson about persuasion can be learned from Tom Sawyer's way of persuading his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence.
Remember a mathematical formula (Distance=Rate x Time).
Solve a mathematical word problem (using the D=RT formula).
Create your own mathematical word problem using the D=RT formula.
Show how to use the D=RT formula to estimate driving time from one city to another near you.
Remember a list of factors that led up to the U.S. Civil War.
Compare, contrast, and evaluate the arguments of those who supported slavery versus those who opposed it.
Write a page of a journal from the viewpoint of a soldier fighting for one or the other side during the Civil War.
Discuss the applicability of lessons of the Civil War for countries today that have strong internal divisions, such as the former Yugoslavia.
Name the main types of bacteria.
Analyze the means the immune system uses to fight bacterial infections.
Suggest a way to cope with the increasing immunity bacteria are showing to antibiotic drugs.
Suggest three steps that individuals might take to reduce the likelihod of bacterial infection.
When we use this framework, relatively few activities will end up requiring only one of these four abilities. On the contrary, most activities will be a mixture, as are the tasks we confront in everyday life. Notice that in this framework, instruction and assessment are closely related. Almost any activity that is used for the one can be used for the other.
In addition, no type of activity should be limited to students whose strength is in that area. On the contrary, we should teach all students in all four ways. In that way, each student will find at least some aspects of the instruction and assessment to be compatible with his or her preferred way of learning and other aspects to be challenging, if perhaps somewhat uncomfortable.
Teaching in all four ways also makes the teacher's job easier and more manageable. No teacher can individualize instruction and assessment for each student in a large class, but any teacher can teach in a way that meets all students' needs.
In the summer of 1993, we conducted a study of high school students to test our hypothesis that students learn and perform better when they are taught in a way that at least partially matches their own strengths (Sternberg 1996; Sternberg and Clinkenbeard 1995; Sternberg et al. 1996). Known as the Yale Summer Psychology Program, the study involved 199 students from high schools across the United States and some from abroad.
Each school had nominated students for the program. Interested nominees then took a test designed to measure their analytical, creative, and practical abilities. The test included multiple-choice verbal, quantitative, and figural items, as well as analytical, creative, and practical essay items (Sternberg 1993). A sample of the items appears in Figure 2.
The vip was green, so I started to cross the street. Vip most likely means:
There is a new mathematical operation called graf. it is defined as follows: x graf y=x+y, if x<y but x graf y=x-y, if otherwise. How much is 4 graf 7?
Figural (Students are shown a map)
After attending a performance at the theatre, you need to drive to House A. If you want to avoid the traffic jam at the intersection of Spruce Avenue and Willow Street and take the shortest alternative route, you will drive
We then selected the students 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). We based these judgments on both the individual student's patterns and the way these patterns compared to those of the other students.
We then placed each student into one of four differentiated instructional treatments. All included a morning lecture that balanced memory, analysis, creativity, and practical learning and thinking. All students used the same introductory psychology text (Sternberg 1995), which was also balanced among the four types of learning and thinking. The treatments differed, however, in the afternoon discussion sections. There, we assigned students to a section that emphasized either memory, analysis, creativity, or practical learning and thinking.
The critical feature of this design was that, based on their ability patterns, some students were matched and others mismatched to the instructional emphasis of their section. Another important feature was that all students received at least some instruction emphasizing each type of ability.
We assessed student achievement through homework assignments, tests, and an independent project. We assessed memory specifically through multiple-choice tests, and we evaluated analytical, creative, and practical abilities through essays. For the essays, we asked students questions such as "Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having armed guards at school" (analysis); "Describe what your ideal school would be like" (creativity); and "Describe some problem you have been facing in your life and then give a practical solution" (practical use).
Because we assessed all students in exactly the same way, we could more easily compare the groups' performance. Had we used the more conventional forms of instruction and assessment, emphasizing memory and analysis, the creative and practical ability tests would probably not have told us much.
The study yielded many findings, but four stand out:
By exposing students to instruction emphasizing each type of ability, we enable them to capitalize on their strengths while developing and improving new skills. This approach is also important because students need to learn that the world cannot always provide them with activities that suit their preferences. At the same time, if students are never presented with activities that suit them, they will never experience a sense of success and accomplishment. As a result, they may tune out and never achieve their full potential.
On a personal note, I was primarily a creative learner in classes that were largely oriented toward memorizing information. When in college, I took an introductory psychology course that was so oriented; I got a C, leading my instructor to suggest that I might want to consider another career path. What's more, that instructor was a psychologist who specialized in learning and memory! I might add that never once in my career have I had to memorize a book or lecture. But I have continually needed to think analytically, creatively, and practically in my teaching, writing, and research.
Success in today's job market often requires creativity, flexibility, and a readiness to see things in new ways. Furthermore, students who graduate with A's but who cannot apply what they have learned may find themselves failing on the job.
Creativity, in particular, has become even more important over time, just as other abilities have become less valuable. For example, with the advent of computers and calculators, both penmanship and arithmetic skills have diminished in importance. Some standardized ability tests, such as the SAT, even allow students to use calculators. With the increasing availability of massive, rapid data-retrieval systems, the ability to memorize information will become even less important.
This is not to say that memory and analytical abilities are not important. Students need to learn and remember the core content of the curriculum, and they need to be able to analyze—to think critically about—the material. But the importance of these abilities should not be allowed to obfuscate what else is important.
In a pluralistic society, we cannot afford to have a monolithic conception of intelligence and schooling; it's simply a waste of talent. And, as I unexpectedly found in my study, it's no random waste. The more we teach and assess students based on a broader set of abilities, the more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse our achievers will be. We can easily change our closed system—and we should. We must take a more balanced approach to education to reach all of our students.
Gardner, H. (1993) Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1995). Leading Minds. New York: Basic Books.
Sternberg, R.J. (1993). "Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test." Unpublished test.
Sternberg, R.J. (1994). "Diversifying Instruction and Assessment." The Educational Forum 59, 1: 47-53.
Sternberg, R.J. (1995). In Search of the Human Mind. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Sternberg, R.J. (1996). Successful Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Sternberg, R.J., and P. Clinkenbeard. (May-June 1995). "A Triarchic View of Identifying, Teaching, and Assessing Gifted Children." Roeper Review 17, 4: 255-260.
Sternberg, R.J., M. Ferrari, P. Clinkenbeard, and E.L. Grigorenko. (1996). "Identification, Instruction, and Assessment of Gifted Children: A Construct Validation of a Triarchic Model." Gifted Child Quarterly 40: 129-137.
Sternberg, R.J., and L. Spear-Swerling. (1996). Teaching for Thinking. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Sternberg, R.J., R.K. Wagner, W.M. Williams, and J.A. Horvath. (1995). "Testing Common Sense." American Psychologist 50, 11: 912-927.
Sternberg, R.J., and W.M. Williams. (1996.) How to Develop Student Creativity.Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Williams, W.M., T. Blythe, N. White, J. Li, R.J. Sternberg, and H.I. Gardner. (1996). Practical Intelligence for School: A Handbook for Teachers of Grades 5-8. New York: Harper Collins.
Author's note: This research was supported under the Javits Act Program (Grant R206R50001), administered by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. The findings and opinions expressed here do not reflect the Office's positions or policies.
Robert J. Sternberg is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, Yale University, P.O. Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205 (e-mail: email@example.com).
Copyright © 1997 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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