President's Column

There are many different labels for children who do not learn well: children with mental retardation, children with learning disabilities, children with developmental disabilities, and so forth. What all these labels have in common is that they place the blame for difficulties in learning squarely on the child at the same time that they absolve the educational system of responsibility for the child's difficulties in learning.

Last month I talked about one of the "other three Rs" that we are proposing through our APA Presidential Task Force on Education: responsibility. This month I will talk about another one: reasoning. These other three Rs largely form the basis for a book I am editing with APA's Rena Subotnik to be published by APA Books on transforming our educational system.

The educational system in the United States, as in many other countries, places great emphasis on instruction and assessments that tap into two important skills: memory and analysis. Students who are adept at these two skills tend to profit from the educational system because the ability, instruction and achievement tests we use all largely measure products and processes emanating from these two kinds of skills. There is a problem, however--namely that children whose strengths are in other kinds of skills may be shortchanged by this system. Children who excel in areas other than memory and analytical abilities may end up doing poorly on ability and achievement tests and find doors shut. By treating children with alternative patterns of abilities as losers, we may end up creating harmful self-fulfilling prophecies.

According to a theory I have proposed, successful intelligence (Sternberg, 1997, 1999) is the ability to succeed in life according to your own definition of success within your sociocultural context by capitalizing on your strengths and correcting or compensating for your weaknesses--and doing this through a combination of analytical, creative and practical skills in order to adapt to, shape and select environments. This definition suggests that there is no single unidimensional measure of intelligence, such as the IQ, that fully captures all aspects of intelligence. Similarly, there is no one method of teaching that works for everyone.

In our work at the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise at Yale University, we develop curricula that teach standard school subjects and assess achievement in these subjects in ways that enable students to capitalize on creative and practical as well as memory and analytical skills (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000). Our research suggests that students learn better when they are taught for successful intelligence than when they are taught by commonly used alternative methods (Grigorenko, Jarvin, & Sternberg, 2002; Sternberg, Torff, & Grigorenko, 1998). In other words, students learn best when they can capitalize on their strengths and also correct or compensate for their weaknesses (Sternberg, Grigorenko, Ferrari, & Clinkenbeard, 1999).

If we, as a society, begin to teach and assess achievement more broadly than we have in the past, we also need to assess abilities more broadly than we have. In a collaboration called the "Rainbow Project," funded by the College Board, we at Yale have worked with faculty at a total of 15 institutions to pilot a test we developed for predicting college success. The test measures creative and practical, as well as analytical, skills. Our pilot data, based on just over 1,000 students at these institutions, indicate that the Rainbow Test significantly and substantially improves prediction of college success (Sternberg & the Rainbow Project Collaborators, 2002). Interestingly, it simultaneously increases diversity because students excelling on creative and practical tests tend to be more ethnically diverse than those excelling on memory and analytical tests.

In conclusion, psychological theory and research provides bases for reaching more children in our schools. The work I have discussed here is only one of many examples. Psychologists have a great deal to say to school teachers and administrators. Part of my mission as APA president is to try to get schools to listen.

Further Reading

  • Grigorenko, E.L., Jarvin, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (2002). School-based tests of the triarchic theory of intelligence: Three settings, three samples, three syllabi. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 167-208.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York: Plume.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (1999). The theory of successful intelligence. Review of General Psychology, 3, 292-316.

  • Sternberg, R.J., Grigorenko, E.L., Ferrari, M., & Clinkenbeard, P. (1999). A triarchic analysis of an aptitude-treatment interaction. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 15(1), 1-11.

  • Sternberg, R.J., & the Rainbow Project Team. (2002, February 16). The rainbow project: Augmenting the validity of the SAT. Paper presented to American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, MA.

  • Sternberg, R.J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E.L. (1998). Teaching for successful intelligence raises school achievement. Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 667-669.