Psychologists have a new set of "three Rs" to remedy the nation's embattled educational system--namely, reasoning, resilience and responsibility--contended APA President and "successful intelligence" proponent Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

Today's young people need these attributes, along with the traditional three Rs, to navigate life's increasingly complex demands, the Yale University psychologist said at a plenary session. "Schools need to pay more attention not just to what students know, but how they use what they know," Sternberg maintained. "Intelligence and knowledge are not enough." Psychologists are well-equipped to help schools incorporate these concepts into the classroom, he noted, because of their extensive research in all three areas.

The school system typically views reasoning, the first R, as analytical intelligence. But Sternberg's research on successful intelligence--in his view, the wise deployment of analytical, practical and creative skills--leads him to believe reasoning should be expanded to include these other attributes. A pilot project he and colleagues are conducting at Yale supports the point: High school students who did well on a test measuring all three abilities were more likely to succeed in college than those who tested well on analytical skills alone, they found (see page 54).

The second R, resilience, provides an important framework for all types of success if properly infused into the curriculum, Sternberg continued. The ability to face and meet challenges can turn talents into successful careers and inspirations into realities, he noted.

"Almost all of us go through periods of staggering defeat, or at least uncertainty," Sternberg said. "The question is not whether you will go through it; it is how you will come out of it."

The third R, responsibility, makes achievements worthwhile, placing them in a context that benefits everyone, Sternberg added. Without it, smart people can make selfish and even disastrous choices, as attested to by the scandals surrounding Enron or Monica Lewinsky.

More research under way

Already, work is under way to foster these ideas. Sternberg's own Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise at Yale, for example, teaches wisdom in the context of existing curricula. In addition, through a presidential task force headed by Sternberg, APA has received a grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to fund a consortium that will examine how schools can infuse these attributes into their class work.

Psychologist Barry Zimmerman, PhD, of the City University of New York, one of those funded under the APA-McDonnell Foundation grant, described research he's conducting on one of the alternate Rs--responsibility. In a study recently submitted for publication, he and psychologist Anastasia Kitsantas, PhD, of George Mason University, examined how student attitudes toward homework and learning affected achievement in 179 ninth through 12th graders at a multi-ethnic, all-girls parochial high school in New York. Homework was a major emphasis of the curriculum, with the girls spending about three hours a day on it.

Students completed three questionnaires: one asking if they were or their teacher was more responsible for problems in learning and classroom behavior; another about their self-efficacy beliefs or self-confidence in their ability to take on learning tasks; and a third about their homework practices.

Similar to other findings, the more homework the girls reported doing, the higher their grade point average at the end of the term, the researchers found. But above and beyond that, psychological factors affected how that occurred: The more self-efficacious the girls felt about overcoming learning challenges and the greater the responsibility they took for their own learning and behavior, the higher their grade point average, the team found.

The findings segue into Zimmerman's work under the APA grant that is the first of its kind: testing a school-based project to teach responsibility, Zimmerman said.

Missing the mark?

Discussant Grover J. Whitehurst, PhD, who directs the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (see page 56), said he is concerned that efforts like those Sternberg and Zimmerman described, while well-intentioned, miss the mark by focusing too closely on controversial character issues and not enough on the basics.

"There are embarrassingly large numbers of children who are simply falling through the cracks," said Whitehurst, who was appointed the institute's first director in 2002. "All the resiliency in the world is unlikely to generate a good job and a satisfying life if you don't have the basic skills to come up to the plate and have a chance at hitting the ball."

If psychologists do focus on the alternate three Rs, they should do so in terms that legislators can understand and will therefore be willing to fund, he advised.

His institute, for example, is funding a grant program that aims to reduce negative and increase positive behaviors, but in the context of educational outcomes.

"We have framed [our] program as having a likely outcome on reading, writing, arithmetic and science because we think it's very likely it will," he said. "If you change a dysfunctional learning environment to one that is organized, disciplined and that encourages responsibility," he added, "that's the environment in which teachers can do their job."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.