Spring 2007, Issue 7

Teaching for Successful Intelligence

Robert SternbergRobert J. Sternberg, PhD, was appointed dean of the School of Arts and Sciences in 2005. He is a professor in the Department of Psychology and he directs the PACE (Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise) Center and the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Sternberg’s interests include intelligence and intelligence testing, creativity and wisdom, leadership, love and close relationships, and hate. He is currently most passionate about improving the academic testing industry and educating both the producers and the consumers of tests about using them better. “The tests we’re using today differ little from the tests used a hundred years ago,” Sternberg comments. “There are cosmetic differences—fancier test booklets, machine scoring—but essentially it’s the same. From a scientific point of view, that’s sad.”

After earning his PhD in psychology from Stanford University in 1975, Sternberg joined the faculty of Yale University, his undergraduate alma mater. Although his research took him to five continents over the next 30 years, Yale remained his academic home until his decision to move to Tufts.

The PACE Center at 108 Bromfield Road in Somerville is Sternberg’s research home. Sternberg founded the center at Yale in 2001 and relocated it to Tufts in 2006. “The basic idea of the center is that abilities are not fixed but rather flexible, that they’re modifiable, and that anyone can transform their abilities into competencies, and their competencies into expertise,” Sternberg explains. “We’re especially interested in how we can help people essentially modify their abilities so that they can be better able to face the tasks and situations they’re going to confront in life.”

Much of the PACE Center’s work is based on the theories of Sternberg and his colleagues. Sternberg explains the theory of successful intelligence as “your ability to achieve what you want in life, and that could be any prosocial activity within your sociocultural context.” The theory suggests that successfully intelligent people achieve what they want by capitalizing on their strengths, correcting or compensating for their weaknesses, and adapting to, shaping, and selecting their environments. “For example, if you come to Tufts as a new student or faculty member, or dean for that matter, you have to learn the environment and adapt, but you also want to make it a better place—you shape,” Sternberg says. “You selected a new environment, through a combination of three kinds of abilities: you need creative abilities in order to come up with some novel ideas, you need analytical abilities to know if they’re good ideas, and you need practical abilities to execute your ideas and to persuade other people of their value.”

These three types of abilities—analytical, creative, practical—are cornerstones of the theory of successful intelligence. Sternberg believes that much of the academic world places too much emphasis on analytical abilities at the expense of creative and practical abilities, resulting in narrow assessments of intelligence. Says Sternberg of one PACE Center study completed recently: “In the Rainbow Project we created assessments of creative and practical as well as analytical abilities. A creative test might be: ‘Here’s a cartoon. Caption it.’ A practical problem might be a movie of a student going into a party, looking around, not knowing anyone, and obviously feeling uncomfortable. What should the student do?” In a national study of a thousand applicants to a range of colleges, the broadened assessment of intelligence identified about twice as many academically successful freshmen (by grade point average) as would have been predicted on the basis of SAT scores alone. The broadened assessment also resulted in a substantial reduction in score differences among ethnic groups. “That’s an example of where we are trying to increase educational opportunities for students and at the same time increase both the academic excellence and the diversity of the university,” says Sternberg.

The PACE Center’s projects to identify abilities extend to many cultures. “In a project we did in Kenya, we devised assessments of kids’ knowledge of natural herbal medicines that can be used to combat parasitic and other illnesses,” says Sternberg. “The idea is that, if you’re living in rural Kenya, this is really important adaptive knowledge to have.” Sternberg and his colleagues were surprised by one result of the Kenya project. There were three possible correlations between the scores on the practical knowledge tests and traditional measures of intelligence and achievement: (1) positive, which is what traditional intelligence theory would predict; (2) negative; and (3) no correlation, which is what Sternberg expected—that practical skills are separate from academic skills. “What we found is that, contrary to expectations, the correlation is negative: the better the child did on the practical test, the worse the child did on the academic test, and vice versa,” says Sternberg. This unexpected result probably has much to do with rural Kenyan society, in which children who can get a good apprenticeship learn a practical trade and those who can’t stay in school and continue learning academics. The traditional intelligence tests did not identify the children with the superior practical knowledge of natural medicines. Could American students be similarly misclassified as unintelligent or underachieving because of the narrow way in which society assesses their abilities? Sternberg believes this is true, which is why he believes so strongly in the need to broaden how we measure abilities.

The evidence is compelling for broadening college entrance assessments to include creative and practical abilities as well as analytical abilities. Tufts took a leadership position in innovative undergraduate admissions by incorporating creative and practical assessments into the 2006 Tufts-specific part of the application. “The goal is to improve our admissions procedures at Tufts so as to be in a position to identify the very best students to take advantage of what Tufts has to offer, and to send a message to students that it’s not just about how high your SATs and GPA are—that there are other things that really matter,” says Sternberg.

The PACE Center is also working to help students reach their goals by changing the way schools teach. Sternberg suggests there is often a mismatch between what you need to do to succeed in a career and what schools are teaching. “If colleges broaden the ways they identify abilities in admissions, then we have to teach in a way that matches the broader range of abilities,” remarks Sternberg. The PACE Center is studying how to teach analytically, creatively, and practically, that is, for successful intelligence. “Teaching for successful intelligence works,” says Sternberg. “Why? Because it better enables kids to capitalize on strengths and compensate for weaknesses.” 

Tufts is putting PACE Center research into practice at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), which opened in 2006 and provides resources for improving teaching at the university. The first CELT seminar on teaching for successful intelligence started in January 2007. The CELT also plans to examine how to teach for wisdom-related skills such as seeking a common good, learning to balance long-term with short-term interests, balancing the interests of others and society with one’s own, and learning to see other points of view. “The thing that is common to the admissions initiative and the instructional initiative is that they’re both based on science—on scientific research published in strong refereed journals—that shows the techniques work,” Sternberg says.

To round out its work the PACE Center is devising assessments of achievement for students who have been exposed to teaching for successful intelligence or matriculated as a result of broadened college admissions criteria. “We work with teachers to develop assessments of achievement that are not only memory based but are analytical, creative, and practical,” says Sternberg. “For example, in one study we showed that if you take the advanced placement achievement tests in statistics and psychology, and you incorporate into them creative and practical achievement-based questions in addition to the more traditional questions, you reduce differences between ethnic groups. So you get results similar to those you get in the admissions business.”

Linda Jarvin, PhD, moved to Tufts from Yale to continue as Deputy Director of the PACE Center. She is also Deputy Director of the CELT. While it embarks on new projects at Tufts, the PACE Center will continue projects and collaborations begun at Yale. PACE Center staff invite the Tufts community to learn about their work and become involved, and offer their expertise in designing instruction and assessing ability and achievement.

For more information on Dean Sternberg, please see http://provost.tufts.edu/academic/deans/sternberg/.

For more information on the PACE Center, please see http://pace.tufts.edu/default.asp.

For more information on the CELT, please see http://provost.tufts.edu/initiatives/celt/.



Tufts University, Office of the Vice Provost
Health Sciences Campus: (617) 636-6550
Medford/Somerville Campus: (617) 627-3417
Copyright 2007 Tufts University. All Rights Reserved.

Please send questions/comments about this site to Webmaster.