Schools Nationwide To Test Novel Teaching Method That Redefines What It Means To Be Smart

Yale scientists have received a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to test triarchic instruction, a teaching method that focuses on children’s creative and practical strengths, rather than their academic skills.

“When we expand the range of abilities we test for, we also expand the range of students we identify as smart,” said Robert Sternberg, the IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale. “In particular, children may possess great creative or practical abilities, which will be key to success in life and in jobs. These strengths are not recognized by instruction, ability or achievement tests, so they are not acknowledged or valued in children.”

Traditional classroom instruction focuses on exercises that strengthen memory and analytical abilities. These skills have traditionally been used to predict how well students do on standardized tests like the SATs or how well they will do in college and in the work world. Sternberg’s theory bucks these traditional methods and forces educators and society to take a different look at what makes children successful.

Over the last decade, Sternberg and his colleagues have used previous grants from the NSF/U.S. Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) to test their methods on both primary and secondary school students.

Results of those studies show, for example, that high school students who are taught in a way that at least partially fits their pattern of triarchic strengths – analytical, creative, practical – outperform students who are not taught in a way that is appropriate for them.

“Our past studies indicate that all children benefit from triarchic instruction, regardless of ability pattern,” Sternberg said. “If they are taught analytically, creatively and practically, in addition to being taught for memory, their achievement is higher than if they are taught for critical thinking or in conventional ways, even if their achievement is assessed only by conventional memory-based assessments.”

Triarchic instruction, for example, assesses memory through multiple-choice tests. Analytical, creative and practical abilities are evaluated using essays. A sample essay question that tests analytical abilities could be, “Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having armed guards at school.” For creativity, the question might be, “Describe what your ideal school would be like,” and for practicality, “Describe some problem you have been facing in your life and then give a practical solution.”

The new grant will test Sternberg’s theory in grades 1-4 across the country in rural, suburban and urban settings in the fields of reading, math and science. He is forming a team of researchers to help implement his method and is actively seeking scientists from around the country to join his team.

“Our goal is to work with teachers to implement our ideas in the classroom and to show that children can achieve at higher levels if taught in a way that enables them to succeed more easily,” said Sternberg.

By teaching triarchically, Sternberg says, we enable children to capitalize on their natural strengths, enable them to correct or compensate for weaknesses and help teachers teach material in three different ways so children are better able to process what they learn. The method also motivates them to succeed because the instruction is more interesting.

“We have a lot of data to show our techniques work and this new grant is an exciting opportunity to help us test whether they work in large-scale interventions,” Sternberg said.

This latest OERI grant will be dispersed over four years. Elena L. Grigorenko is a co-principal investigator on the study and Linda Jarvin is a project director.

Sternberg’s theories carry over from the classroom to the board room. He recently was a featured speaker on the subject of successful intelligence in professional life at the Institute of Personnel and Development’s national conference at Harrogate in England.

In 1999, Professor Sternberg received the Distinguished Lifetime Contribution Award to psychology from the Connecticut Psychological Association; the James McKeen Cattell Award, one of the two highest awards given by the American Psychological Association for outstanding contributions to psychological research; and the Palmer O. Johnson award for the best article in a Journal of the American Educational Research Association.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326