Robert Sternberg

ROBERT STERNBERG

Yes. I’m Robert J. Sternberg. I’m IBM professor of psychology and education in the Department of Psychology at Yale University.

Uh, we look particularly for three kinds of giftedness. The first kind is the more conventional kind and it’s giftedness in memory and analytical abilities. So memory would be your remembering when something happened, what happened, where did it happen, who did it, uh how did they do it. And analytical giftedness would be skill in comparing and contrasting, for example, the things of two different stories or analyzing a poem, or evaluating a scientific experiment, or comparing and contrasting perhaps uh two different ways of solving a math problem. And that’s the kind of giftedness that would be measured by intelligence tests, achievement tests, uh much of school performance. So it’s the kind that we’re familiar with and often comfortable with. A second kind of giftedness in—what I call “The Theory of Successful Intelligence,” is creative giftedness which teachers of the gifted will be familiar with, as will other people. And creative giftedness is when you’re very good at creating things. It could be an artwork, a sculpture, a poem. It could be music, it could be a scientific experiment, it could just, you know, a talent for discovery or for invention, inventing gadgets. Uh, it could be uh—it’s an imagination, the kind of giftedness, where you come up with very unusual and high-quality ideas. But what’s common to creative giftedness is thinking in a way that other people don’t think, having good ideas that are also novel. So that’s a second kind. And what we’ve found is that the two kinds that are much correlated. So someone could be gifted in analytical in memory uh and not also gifted in coming up with creative ideas. Or someone could be very creatively gifted and not necessarily be good at memorizing their lessons in school. And a third kind of giftedness is what we call practical giftedness and people sometimes just call it common sense. Uh, it’s being able to take the information you have and be able to use it effectively. So we’ve all known people who have vast stories of information. They’re like walking encyclopedias. It doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to use it in their lives. Uh, if we’re talking say in the teaching profession, someone could have done very well in education courses; it doesn’t mean they’ll be a good teacher. So the practically gifted person is someone who’s very good at using what they’ve learned, kids who can take what they learn and form a business uh or implementing things. So they might be good with their hands or good at uh fixing automobiles or bicycles uh, it—utilizing what they know. Uh, it’s basically though, putting into practice. It’s uh taking whatever knowledge and skills you have and using them in a way that’s practical. And the basic idea then is that most people if they’re going to gifted, won’t be gifted in all three. They might be in one, they might be in two, or potentially they might be in three. But the key in this theory of successful intelligence is not so much that you’re good at this or that or the other thing, it’s that you figure out what is it that you really are good at because many people are very good at something and the trick is to figure out what is that thing that I’m really good at and how can I make the most of it. And whether it’s repairing automobiles, or taking photographs, or doing interviewing, or being a poet, make the most of what you do well and the things that you don’t do well—and everyone has things they don’t do well, find ways around it. Either correct your weaknesses or compensate for them. So the big key is for every person to find what—what do they have to contribute to the world and how can they make the most of that and where are they not so good and how can they make up for it?

Yeah, the basic idea of the Theory of Successful Intelligence, which I sometimes call Triarchic because it has three parts, is that what we want to do is look at intelligence broadly. Not just in terms of the skills that lead to academic success—although those skills are important—uh but conventional notions of intelligence and giftedness evolved around schools. And one of our biggest concerns is not just what will lead to success in school, but success in life. So we defined successful intelligence as the ability to succeed in life given your own conception of success. And so that means that one of the things a teacher needs to do is to figure out not just what she means by success for the child, which might be grades or good behavior in the classroom, but what’s success to that child? Is it—it might classroom success; it might be succeeding on the playing field, during an orchestra, or an art, or in leadership. Because each person defines success for him or herself within their cultural context and then the successfully intelligent people find ways of adapting to, shaping, and selecting environments. So they use their gifts and talents to figure out how can I modify myself in order to make the contribution I have to make. Because in any environment, you have to sort of figure out some of the rules of the game. In a school, uh what do teachers expect, what does the school expect? On a job. But a gifted person doesn’t just adapt. They don’t just say, “How can I change myself to fit the environment,” they also try to change the environment to fit them. They shape the environment. So you might go into a school with a teacher, say, and to say to yourself, “Well look, of course I have to so call play the game. The principal and the district expect certain things of me.” But no school is perfect. No environment is perfect. And part of the contribution I have to make is try to shape the environment to make it better for kids and better, of course, for the teachers too. And then the third aspect is selection, which means that sometimes in life you find you’re just in the wrong place there at the wrong time. It’s the wrong school, it’s the wrong community, uh it’s the wrong kinds of organizations. You thought it was one thing, it’s another thing. So part of this whole picture of people who are successful in their lives is figuring out when to change yourself to fit the environment, when to change the environment to fit you, and when to get out of there and find a better place.

I think that accountability is very important in schooling and the reason is that it’s important in life. We’re always accountability uh for what we do. We’re accountable to the law, we’re accountable to our families, uh and we should be accountable on our jobs regardless of what the job is. So I don’t see accountability for schools as being any different from accountability uh in a private organization. That if you’re uh not selling products, maybe you don’t stay in your job as CEO. But with that said, I think that the way that accountability is being operationalized—put into practice, is often not—not optimal at all uh, in the sense that we’ve become slaves to tests that are very narrow in their conceptualization. So in—there’s a—there’s an expression in English literature where it’s called synecticy (spelling?), I believe. And it’s when you take a part of something and you use that expression to refer to the whole thing. Like ‘The Crown’ to refer to the whole kingdom. And that’s what we’ve done in the education movement. We’ve taken tests that are very narrow that are just a part of what a school should be accomplishing in terms of fostering the achievement of their students and we’ve made it into the whole thing. And we’ve said that an accountable school is one that raises test scores but schools should be doing so much more. And when you start to focus very narrowly on one set of measures, what can end up happening is that you basically teach to the tests. And instead of educating students uh your classes and your schooling can become like a test preparation course. And so I think that the idea of accountability is good but the way it’s being implemented often is not.

I think that a multidisciplinary approach to education is really important uh to the extent that I’ve just written an article about it. Because what tends to happen is that in life you’re always using different kinds of knowledge together. So when um you’re dealing with your family, you have to think about practical, economic issues. You have to think about social issues in terms of say how you get along with other families or get along with your community. You have to think about spiritual issues. You have to think about uh moral issues. There are many kinds of different issues that you need to take—bring together to solve a real problem. So if you have a problem in your life you may find you have to look at it from an economic point of view, a moral point of view, a political point of view, a social point of view. And if we weren’t teaching children to do that and to combine points of view in solving problems then we wouldn’t be educating them in a way that would be preparatory for what they’ll need to do as they go through life. In—as a convenience, different subject matter areas have been separated and you can certainly see why that would happen. But if we don’t somehow integrate them then the lesson we teach students is to look at problems from one point of view. And that’s the wrong lesson to be teaching them. So what I advocate is that we take a more problem centered approach. That we realize, of course, that the contributions of history, and science, and mathematics, and language arts are different but we can take a problem about history or a problem of literature and see it from many different points of view. Understanding a novel in its historical context or in studying history, understanding how history interacts with the music, the art, the literature, uh the science of the times. And I think that that’s a better way to educate kids.

I think that legislation is important in the area of the gifted uh and the reason is that for whatever reasons in this country, giftedness has tended to get short trift. I think that that’s something that everyone in the gifted field knows although not perhaps everyone outside it. Uh, I believe that it’s the case that if money that goes to special education, the proportion or the percentage that goes to giftedness is about 1/10th of 1 percent. It’s really tiny uh and that seems to me to be a horrendous mistake. Uh and the reason it’s a horrendous mistake is that you want to provide for every student the best education possible. That should be the goal of education and I don’t see why gifted children would be any different from children of mental retardation or children with learning disabilities or hearing disabilities. Uh every group needs to have an appropriate education. Uh the view that while these kids are gifted so they can just take care of themselves is simply wrong. We have a lot of research that suggests it’s wrong. If anything these kids need more nurture and some more guidance because often the social situation they’re in and the educational situation are not terribly appropriate for them. So I think go to legislation that supports gifted education and it supports research in gifted education is extremely important because otherwise it often simply won’t happen.

I think that underachievement among students who are identified as gifted uh can occur for lots of different reasons and it’s—uh the reasons that it can occur or one of the reasons that we need gifted education uh in order to support the needs of these students—uh, of course it can occur because a child has been mislabeled. Uh, I don’t think that that’s a common cause, but it can occur for that reason. I think that another reason that underachievement occurs in gifted education is that there’s sometimes social pressure on gifted kids not to achieve. Uh, if they’re achieving at higher levels then other students, they’re often made to feel odd or excluded or like they don’t belong uh like outcasts. And so they feel pressure to achieve at lower levels so that they fit in more with the crowd. And part of what education needs to do is support—is support their special needs. Another reason that you can get underachievement in the gifted is that sometimes the teaching is not appropriate to the kind of giftedness that the student has. So you can have a student, for example, who is marvelously creatively gifted and I sometimes wonder whether some schools would even know it. The way they teach is often incapable with the way that that child learns and the child may just be viewed as a behavior problem or someone who uh doesn’t conform to the expectations of the school. So that students who have a lot of potential who are not taught in an appropriate way may underachieve. The—the metaphor sometimes is, is that it affects spotlight. For example, right now as I talk to you there is a fixed spotlight that’s shining on me. And it always is shining at the same intensity in exactly the same place. And so it spotlights me or whoever sits in this chair but anyone sitting anywhere else gets none of this spotlight at all and that what the problem with that—that’s like a model. It says that there’s one group you spotlight, they’re the so-called gifted, and other groups get none of the light. And we believe that there are many different kinds of giftedness but we need to diffuse the spotlight so that it shines on a lot more kids and perhaps not quite so intensely. So that’s—that’s sort of—and once we do that and recognize that there’s different kinds of giftedness and we—we need to teach to them in different ways, I think we’ll find less underachievement. And, in fact, that’s what our research shows.

We have implemented a number of programs for teaching gifted children and a major goal of our programs is to help children capitalize on their strengths and to compensate for and correct our weaknesses. In other words we say there are many different ways kids can be gifted so a program needs to recognize that. So what we try to do is teach material in a way that is responsive not only to kids memory skills but also to their analytical, creative, and practical skills. So some of the times we might be having the kids remember stuff, straight memory, some of the times analyze what they learn, some of the times create—go beyond what they learn and sometimes apply what they’ve learned to very practical situations. And that doesn’t mean that every kid is taught in a different way because you want both to teach to the children’s strengths and to teach to their weaknesses so that they can improve on the skills that they’re not so strong at. So from the standpoint of the teacher, what the teacher’s doing, is teaching in a variety of ways to hook every kid, to make sure that at least some of the time the kid is sparked, is driven, is excited because it fits the way he or she learns and then other parts of the time it’s a little more challenging, it’s not as easy for the child. And what we’ve found is that when we teach and assess—it’s very important to match the teaching and assessment for memory, analytical, creative, and practical abilities—student achievement increases and it—it increases for everybody. So we’re very committed to the idea that if we teach in a way that’s appropriate to the way children learn uh their achievement will increase.

Our current research is on applying our theory of successful intelligence, which emphasizes the importance of analytical, creative, and practical skills in schools uh around the country and even around the world. We have several different research projects that are current that are oriented towards that goal. One of them, which is fun—funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the United States Office of Educational Research and Improvement is a national program for teaching 4th grade science, mathematics, and language arts triarcichly, analytically, creatively, and practically, and comparing our—what we believe is the best motive instruction to so-called teaching for critical thinking and teaching for memory. And what we’re trying to show on a national scale is what was shown in smaller studies and that is that the teaching for successful intelligence will give superior outcomes regardless of the subject matter area with respect to critical thinking and memory. A second project is also funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Office of Educational Research and Improvement and it’s combining some of the ideas that teaching for successful intelligence, analytically, creatively, and practically, with more ideas about technology. It’s in collaboration with Ed Friedman’s group at Stevens Institute of Technology and the basic idea is to use Internet technology where kids are learning about events that are happening at the very time they’re learning. So if they’re learning about vectors uh they would be studying airplanes that are in the sky as they’re learning. They’re actually on the Internet following flights that are in progress. Or if they’re learning about earthquakes, they’d be learning about earthquakes that are happening that day. And what we’re interested in seeing is whether Friedman’s type of high technology uh instruction can be combined with their uh theoretical basis of teaching for successful intelligence in order to improve kids science learning. Uh, to make it real to the kids so that they see that science is something that’s happening all around us as we speak. Uh, a third project is funded by the United States Office of Educational Research and Improvement and that’s looking at the nature of giftedness across the lifespan and the idea is that what we mean by gifted is different at different stages of a career. So a gifted mathematics student in 4th grade is really quite different from a gifted mathematics graduate student or what makes a mathematician. Or you can see this a lot in music where you’ll have someone who’s a gifted child prodigy but then as an adult uh is really rather ordinary uh as a musician. They have very good technical skills but they don’t have the musicality to make themselves successful. So in this new project we’re trying to look at “How does the nature of giftedness change?” And we think that this is important from the standpoint of identification uh and we think it’s especially important from the standpoint of identifying members of underrepresented minorities. But many of these kids may have skills that are very relevant to later success but they don’t have the memory and analytical skills developed that will get them the success in school. So even though they could be terrific business people, or musicians, or artists, or scientists, politicians, they may not be able to get access to the roots, the educational uh paths, that will enable them to enter those professions. So what we’re trying to do is improve access to educational resources for underrepresented minorities and for others to so that everybody has a chance in order to fulfill his or her dreams. To accomplish what he or she can accomplish uh to make a difference to the world.

I think that uh counseling of the gifted has to take into account the child’s whole being essentially. Uh, of course, you’ll want to take into account their patterns of skills and one of the hardest things there is just finding out what these patterns of skills uh are. Uh, so that often what happens is that we don’t quite know what the kids’ strengths are and it’s very hard to figure them out. I know having had two kids that one of the greatest challenges for parents, as for teachers, is to realize that so-called psychological theories of three parts of intelligence, one intelligences, seven intelligences, 120 intelligences, that there are thousands of ways in which people can excel. And you can’t quite try them all so I think an important part of counseling is trying to help a child find paths that really take and it’s quite frustrating for whoever’s doing the counseling uh because often you—the 1st one doesn’t work, the 5th one doesn’t work, the 10th one doesn’t work and you can feel like giving up. And so the important thing is to keep trying until you find what those strengths are. So that’s from the more cognitive point of you. A—a second thing is to find not only what the child—from a more motivational point of view, is to find not only what the child’s good at but what they love to do. And sometimes they correspond but sometimes they don’t. So you could have a child who has a lot of musical talent but just doesn’t really want to pursue the music uh or is a wonderful athlete but wants to do something else. And often that part of counseling is as much uh counseling ourselves as it is the kids because it may mean letting go of specific goals or desires we had for these children. So what I try to do with my own kids and my own students is to find what they really love to do, not what I would love to see them doing because sometimes they’re different and I have uh seen that with my own children. So that’s the motivational side. So I talked about the cognitive side and the motivational side and the third is the affective or emotional side uh and that’s equally important because gifted kids face special challenges. Uh, they may have difficulties with their peers because they stand out uh and that makes the peers uncomfortable. They may have difficulty with themselves because they’re intellectual skills and their social skills may mismatch each other. Uh, they may have difficulty uh getting along with authority figures, the teachers, uh because they find that what the teachers demand of them and what they feel they have to give doesn’t correspond. So I think that counseling has to have at least three components. A cognitive one uh in terms of finding what you’re good and not so good at and making the most of it. A motivational one, which is finding the things you love to do at the same time that you recognize that sometimes you just have to do things you don’t particularly like to do, that’s life. And an affective or emotional one, and that is meeting the uh special challenges that gifted kids face in terms of adapting to their environment.

Uh, the main counsel I give to parents about raising bright children is to try to find appropriate challenges for the children and do everything you can in that. And that’s what I have tried to do as a parent of two gifted kids because sometimes the schools meet their needs and sometimes they don’t. And, of course, you can work on the schools but that is usually only partially successful. So sometimes you have to take on the responsibility for finding the extra challenges for the kids and whether it’s in terms of music, or art, or athletics, or science, or drama, or whatever the child’s talents and interests happen to be. Uh so I think that the main thing is to uh find the right challenges and provide the opportunities to be supportive of the child and not to push to hard. Uh, that you have to make sure that what you’re doing is for the sake of the child and not for the sake of your image of who you hope the child will be.

Well, I think that my main wish uh now for gifted children is that we think of giftedness in a somewhat different way then we do now. And the notion we use is that—we call it developing expertise. Uh, our society tends to look at abilities and achievement as these two separate things. And I—I think if you look at the tests what you find is that the two kinds of tests really measure pretty much the same stuff. So what we try to do in our teaching is to develop kinds of expertise. To say, “What is it—what are the things that this child is likely to be interested in doing later—try to find those and then teach in a way that’s appropriate for what they’re going to do?” So if they’re interested in science, I think they get at least some feeling for what it’s really like to be a scientist because often they don’t understand. They’ll uh either memorize a block or they’ll do can lab experiments and think, “Oh, that’s what a scientist does, can lab experiments,” so that they never really understand what the challenges of science are. And kids who might be very motivated to pursue science never get uh the chance because they think, “Oh, this is really boring or this is not something I’m good at.” Uh, and that’s sort of what happened to me when I took introductory psychology, I thought I really wanted to be a psychologist and I was very discouraged by getting a ‘C’ in the course. And I got a ‘C’ I think because I’m not good at memory courses. And so I thought, “I don’t have the ability to be a psychologist” and I thought I could never develop the expertise as a psychologist because I can’t memorize the book. But then it turns out that as a psychologist I don’t sit around memorizing books. And what I think happens more generally is that kids may have the ability to contribute something really neat to society but the way their socialized in education they don’t even realize that that’s true. Uh, in my case, my teacher handed back a not very good test paper and said to me that there’s a famous Sternburg in psychology and it looks like there won’t be another one. So what I’m saying is that the kinds of expertise that we often value in the schools and the kinds that are valued once we become mature adults are—can be different. And so the kids who have the potential to contribute or often are discouraged or never even given the chance. So my one wish would be that children be taught in a way so that they can see what it is they’ll be really doing and whether that is something indeed that they like to do.

Well, we um emphasize teaching for creativity in our programs and we have different programs that do that. We think that the main characteristic of creative people is that they’re people who defy the crowd. That if uh most people are going over here toward the left, then the creative person will often go to the right. And that it’s—it’s not uh—it’s not something you’re born with, it’s a disposition you acquire. Uh, it’s something I learned from one of my mentors that just because everyone thinks something is true doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, if a lot of people think it, chances are pretty good it may be wrong. And what a creative person does is question things that other people don’t question. Uh, and what’s important for schools uh is to encourage that questioning process and also to realize that these creative kids will often find themselves in opposition because that’s—that’s what—that’s what their nature has become. Uh and to encourage that because every society needs people who question the ways the society works. So what we try to do is to teach the idea, the creativity is—it’s a decision. It’s not so much an ability as your decision that just because things are done in a certain way doesn’t mean they have to be done that way, doesn’t mean that they should be done that way, but that you should question uh the way people think, the way you, yourself, think in order to develop uh this sort of creative mindset. And so we have a set of decisions we teach. And we say if you want to be creative, here are the things you do. You take sensible risks; you realize that we need to fire the crowd. They’ll be obstacles and it’s important to surmount those obstacles. Creative people are willing to tolerate ambiguity. They realize that the road to getting the idea right is a long and uncomfortable one. They redefine problems. So it—it’s a series of techniques. But the main notion in our view of creativity—of creativity is that creativity is a decision.

Well, I think that technology and education are becoming more and more fused uh and that that’s a good thing because there are many things you can do with technology that you can’t do without them. Uh, an example is teaching kids uh in terms of things that are happening at the very time you’re learning. Uh, airplanes, earthquakes, storms, fires. Uh through the Internet you can find out what’s happening at the very moment and it gives a sense of reality to education that you often don’t get if you’re reading a book and reading about things that happened in the past. So technology gives you a wonderful window into the present which is especially marvelous for practical learners who can just see that what I’m learning is relevant to what’s happening right at the moment. That’s the positive side. The downside is that some times technology is used in mindless ways and it can be used in ways that are—it’s really just putting a book on the screen uh, or it can be used uh just to waste kids time the way worksheets can. You’re just sort of mindlessly sitting—sitting at a computer. We don’t really know that well what the affects of technology are. The research is—base is still quite sparse. So I think probably the most important thing is that we do the research to find out what kinds of technology are helpful uh and what kinds may be less so.

Well, I—I think that there’s just one other topic if I could mention it then maybe we’ll be all set. One of our most recent directions in research—and we’ve just started a new project funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation to study this wisdom. And the idea here is that in our society we kind of, when we think about gifted, is emphasize ideas of gifts and talents. And we say that intellectual skills matter and we may even emphasize to, you know, athletic talents, artistic talents. And one of the things I’ve been concerned about for a while is that we can develop people’s intelligence but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll use their intelligence for good ends. That what I think often happens is you can get people very gifted and then they use their gifts only with themselves in mind uh to make a lot of money or to run a country and sometimes run it into the ground just to preserve your own power. Or to run a business in order to increase your own personal wealth and without asking what’s best for the customers or best for the shareholders. And so what we have been interested in is trying to develop a program for middle school kids that will teach them to use their gifts and talents in a way not just to benefit themselves or just their families, but for the common good. In other words, instead of just teaching lessons, the question is “How can you use what you learn uh in order to make the maximum contribution to yourself and to others,” of course, but also to institutions to your society, to your culture, to your religion, to whatever—whatever groups that are important to you. And so that is the most recent direction we’re taking. The view that we should developing in gifted kids not only their gifts and talents and achievements uh in a narrow sense, but that they use these wisely.