Some people are just too clever for their own good exchange

March 25, 2005

Stephen Phillips discovers humility can be the best lesson of all for those at the top of the tree

There's probably something in the cliche of the brainy intellectual who is unable to change a light bulb, says Yale University psychology professor Robert Sternberg.

"Academic and practical skills have a very low correlation," he says. He believes that academic skills such as analytical prowess are important, but says universities have not placed enough emphasis on the value of creative and practical skills.

Sternberg, who is giving a keynote speech at next week's British Psychological Society quinquennial conference, says that, by overemphasising a narrow subset of skills acquired at school, universities are overlooking students with other strengths. He believes this has led to many students being written off and dissuaded from entering fields in which they might excel. Sternberg's work is fired by personal indignation. He was told he did not have the aptitude for psychology, but confounded the forecast, graduating with "exceptional distinction" and earning a PhD in the subject from Stanford University. But he was lucky. "There's a belief that kids who don't score well can't succeed, so they don't get the opportunities," says Sternberg. "They're treated like they're not bright, so they act like it - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

To diagnose different, more creative thinking and learning styles, he has devised a series of tests. The so-called Rainbow Project, for example, measures creative thinking by asking students to caption cartoons and write stories. To assess problem-solving skills, students are posed real-life scenarios, such as how to handle a party where you know no one. Used alongside more traditional analytical tests, these assessments predict first-year college success twice as well as analytical tests alone, he claims.

He concedes he is taking on powerful vested interests by suggesting alternatives to current educational practice. "When a system works for a particular group, it's hard to get rid of it, because people who profit from it don't want to relinquish their higher status," he says. Sternberg believes schools' "conservative agenda" stands in marked contrast to that of employers, who tend to promote staff based on ability rather than grade.

Which brings us to Sternberg's latest project: wisdom. "It's the idea that you have people who are smart but foolish," he explains. He thinks an overemphasis on academic skills breeds overconfidence and may partly lie behind the hubris shown by managers caught up in recent US corporate scandals. Teaching that encourages wisdom - greater altruism and humility - wouldn't go amiss, Sternberg says.

The British Psychological Society quinquennial conference will be held from March 30 to April 2 at Manchester University. Details: www.bps.org.uk

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