Schools of thought

Thinking Styles
April 10, 1998

Everyone is familiar with the student who does superbly well at school but then at university somehow fails to fulfil this great promise. Or such students may come through university as well with flying colours, only to disappear from sight in the world of work. Even more notorious, because more appealing to the imagination, are those who fail dismally at school and then, like Winston Churchill, go on to inspire the world. It is Robert Sternberg's contention that such phenomena are to be explained by the fact that different environments suit different people's style of thought. It is not a matter of intellectual ability, but of the manner in which we each find it possible to learn.

There are three main different styles of thought, he says: legislative, executive and judicial. It is not an accident that these names are drawn from the sphere of government; nor are we being offered a mere analogy. The argument is that governments are so divided because the people who make them up are themselves distinguished by internal characteristics, divisible along these lines. These characteristics are referred to as mental self-government, a micro-system that mirrors the macro-system of society. Further, one can discover within individuals tendencies towards internal monarchy, oligarchy or anarchy. A style of thought is the way people prefer to think, though such preferences may change over time, according to the age and circumstances of the individual. But the broad tendency is likely to remain fairly constant. A happy and successful individual is one who ultimately finds work suited to his or her style.

The practical message of this book is that we must distinguish between styles of thought and ability. People are often radically underestimated, because it is not recognised that their style does not match the learning or working environment in which they find themselves. This is especially likely to be the case at school. Schoolteachers, because they have to prepare their pupils for tests, demand accuracy, a good memory, the willingness to reproduce the correct answer (especially in that scourge of the United States, the multiple-choice test.) All these things are the function of the executive style.

The legislative style is, on the other hand, creative, setting the rules for itself, discontented merely to obey given guidelines. People of this cast of mind may not have good memories, and in any case want to study in their own way, especially if they also have monarchic tendencies, when they are likely to be led by crazes and an overwhelming desire to pursue one subject to the virtual exclusion of all others (the alternatives to monarchy, as a governmental style, are oligarchy, within which more ends than one can be pursued, and anarchy, which is chaos). The judicial thought-style is little better than the legislative from the point of view of school, since it is, above all, critical and may seek to undermine the authority of the teacher or the textbook.

The general thesis is illustrated by numerous character sketches of, mostly, students, or immediate postgraduates, who exemplify the different profiles of style (for it is not to be supposed that each person is wholly committed to one form of self-government or another). These sketches are quite amusing - though, once one has grasped the main lines of the theory, not particularly surprising.

Against the general background of the theory, readers are offered a series of self-assessment questionnaires by which to determine their own thinking style. These are entitled the Sternberg-Wagner self-assessment inventories. They resemble nothing so much as the kinds of questionnaire much loved of women's magazines, by means of which you are supposed to find out where you rate on scales of sex-appeal, bossiness, charm and other characteristics. My trouble in awarding myself marks in such tests is that I never know what is a true answer. Do I like to work with other people or by myself? Do I like to set priorities among the things I have to do before I start doing them? I honestly do not know. Sometimes I do, sometimes I do not. And then an awful lot of arithmetic is involved, adding up the total score and dividing it by eight and so on. It is not difficult, but it gets boring after about two tests.

Sternberg insists that the distinction between different styles of thought is a distinction of fact and in no way evaluative. It is very hard to believe this. Over and again, it is the legislative style that is presented as desirable, the executive tedious and unimaginative, with the judicial respectable and somewhere in the middle. This is really clear from the start, in the hostile presentation of schoolteachers, with their emphasis on accuracy and memory, against which the free creative spirits of the legislators rebel. Moreover, in all his references to himself, it is noticeable that Sternberg, no doubt accurately, places himself firmly among the legislators. Neither is he above a peculiarly familiar form of academic snobbery that tells the story of his own total failure to perform well in examinations that demand the regurgitation of acquired facts. There is no doubt where his sympathies lie: a person who is not only executive in thinking style but anarchic with it has not much hope left.

Although Sternberg argues that intelligence testing is dubious, on the grounds that it tests only some kinds of intelligence, and although he rightly holds that some people have high ability that is underappreciated (and that some others have creative ambitions but too little ability to fulfil them), he never explains how ability itself, as opposed to thought-style, is to be assessed. And this is the main weakness of the book.

Baroness Warnock is a life fellow, Girton College, Cambridge.

Thinking Styles

Author - Robert J. Sternberg
ISBN - 0 521 553164
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 180

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