Robert J. Sternberg on How to Produce Students Who Can Change the World

80140100968370lQ & A with Robert J. Sternberg was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) on September 15. Dan Berrett of the Chronicle writes of Sternberg, “Over an extensive career, he has challenged orthodoxies on admissions, standardized testing, and academic culture. . . . In his new book, What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership, Sternberg synthesizes his research and evolving thinking on intelligence, creativity, common sense, wisdom, and leadership. . . . He proposes a new model that prepares students for what he calls ‘active concerned citizenship and ethical leadership,’ or ‘Accel.’ That means emphasizing access over exclusivity, he says, and cultivating broad abilities, like creativity, wisdom, and practical thinking, instead of narrow ones like memory.”

A few short excerpts of the interview follow:

On the kinds of priorities educational institutions should emphasize
One is an emphasis on access rather than exclusion. Honestly, when I was an administrator at Tufts, I was very proud of how many students we were rejecting, like having a really low acceptance rate was really great. That’s not a criticism of Tufts. I’m talking about myself.


Honestly, when I was an administrator at Tufts, I was very proud of how many students we were rejecting, like having a really low acceptance rate was really great.


The second would be an emphasis on abilities and skills as modifiable rather than fixed. And the third thing would be not just an emphasis on memory and analysis. To succeed in the world and in just about any profession, creative, wisdom-based, and ethical skills are hugely important — more important than analytical skills. What we’re doing, both in our admissions and in our instruction and assessment in colleges, often doesn’t well reflect the challenges that you’ll face as an active citizen and an ethical leader.

On how his teaching has evolved over time
My first year of teaching, I really sucked. The first day of my first course on intelligence, as an assistant professor at Yale, I had 50 students. The second day I had 25. The third day I had 12, and I ended up with five. I think I was doing something wrong there. I came to realize that what we emphasize in our instruction and assessment is what I sometimes call Alice types: people who are good standardized test takers, who are good at getting grades, who raise their hands and say the right things. To a large extent, colleges aren’t developing the skills that matter in life, which are not just knowledge, but the creative and practical and ethical and wisdom ones, too.

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Robert J. Sternberg on How to Produce Students Who Can Change the World