In his continuing series on gifted thinkers, Charles Dietz looks at the work of Robert Sternberg and how he has influenced the teaching of gifted pupils

Born in 1949, American psychologist Robert Sternberg says that he was considered a ‘dummy’ in his first years at school. At university he dropped out of psychology because of his poor grades and switched to maths. This is hardly the background one would expect of the man who is now IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale., but Sternberg’s research has been driven by his personal problems. His failure at IQ tests as a child sparked an interest in intelligence testing which led to his proposing an alternative theory of intelligence and his poor grades at university led to his developing new ways of educating students.

Sternberg overcame his early setbacks partly by luck. At elementary school in New Jersey he was classified as a low achiever because of his poor IQ scores. His teachers, he says, didn’t expect anything of him, and he obliged them by underachieving. It was only when a new teacher demonstrated higher expectations that he responded positively. She demanded more and he gave more. At university, after dropping out of psychology, it was only the discovery that he was even more unsuited to maths that led him back to the subject at which he subsequently excelled. Sternberg feels he is lucky not to have switched to subject he would have found more congenial, such as English.

Successful intellingence

Sternberg’s educational theories aim to bring out the best in all students by catering for different forms of intelligence and thinking styles. They have evolved through reflection on his own problems.

Why did the IQ test classify him as stupid? Because it tested only a certain kind of intelligence – the ability to memorise and analyse. Why did he obtain poor grades in his undergraduate course? Because his essays were too ‘creative’ – he posed new questions that defied the marking scheme.

Sternberg asked himself why many people with the practical ability to do a job such as his – to teach, research and administrate – were rejected because of an inability to memorise facts. He concluded that the American education system was failing many talented students because it was unable to recognise or nurture their creative and practical abilities.

In response he formulated his ‘triarchic’ theory of intelligence and its practical application, ‘successful intelligence’ – ‘the ability to achieve success in life, given one’s personal standards within one’s personal sociocultural context’.

Sternberg’s triarchtic theory

Analytical Intelligence

  • Traditional notion of intelligence

  • Abstract thinking and logical reasoning

  • Verbal and mathematical skills

Experiential / creative intelligence

  • Creativity

  • Divergent thinking (generating new ideas)

  • Ability to deal with novel situations

Contextual / practical intelligence

  • ‘Street smarts’

  • Ability to apply knowledge to the real world

  • Ability to shape one’s environment; choose an environment

Sternberg’s view is compatible with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences but differs in being processrather than content-oriented. Sternberg also emphasises that the three intelligences are at their best when all are employed together.

He also identifies a number of thinking styles. Everyone has a mix of such styles, but will vary in the strength of their preferences. People will appear more or less intelligent in accordance with their ability to use the appropriate thinking style in a given situation: the legislative style predominates in people who like to come up with their own way of doing things; the executive style predominates in people who like to follow rules; the judicial style predominates in people who like to evaluate existing rules and procedures.

Teachers can vary their teaching styles to cater for different learning styles. This does not mean identifying particular students’ preferences and only teaching them in that way. Sternberg believes that intelligence is expandable and that different thinking styles can be learned. Moreover, it is not healthy for students to learn only in the way with which they are most comfortable. This can in fact be a problem for bright students who go through the education system being rewarded for memorising, only to find they have little practical intelligence with which to face the outside world.

Practical applications

Sternberg does not advocate teaching everything three times, but varying teaching styles in order to practise different skills and cater for different learning styles:

Analytical skills: for example, getting students to analyse a character from a novel, compare and contrast two paintings or rate the performance of someone who has won a tennis match. Assessment is based on the extent to which the work is informed, logical, organised and balanced.

Creative skills: asking students questions to which there is no ‘right’ answer: imagining alternative endings to a novel; creating an advertisement for a product based on something studied in a science class; writing a dialogue in French in which a tourist asks for directions in Paris. Assessment is based on the extent to which the work is informed, novel, compelling and task oriented.

Practical skills: enabling students to apply something they have learned in a real world context: using a lesson learned from a literary character in their own lives; applying a mathematical lesson in the supermarket; predicting how they would have to change their lifestyle in a different region of the globe. Assessment is based on the extent to which the product is informed and feasible.

For Sternberg, the gifted student is one who can capitalise on strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, adapt to novelty and automatise new skills rapidly. For him, just as there is no single kind of intelligence; there is no single kind of giftedness. It can manifest in different ways in different situations. His view is that what is good for gifted students is good for all students, but that if badly done, gifted education can become an elitist enterprise.

Further information

Sternberg, RJ (1996), Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life, Simon and Schuster, NY

Sternberg’s theories have been tested in several large school-based trials where they were found to improve student performance. Go to  for a summary of this research and links to further materials.