Sternberg's Triarchic Theory Research Paper Starter

Sternberg's Triarchic Theory

Sternberg criticizes traditional intelligence tests for narrowly measuring analytic skills; he argues that intelligence should be defined more broadly, encompassing creative and practical skills as well. Sternberg approaches the question of intelligence from three perspectives – in relation to an individual's internal world; in relation to an individual's experience; and in relation to an individual's environment. For Sternberg, intelligence is not a fixed entity; it can change in composition as well as improve over time. As a result, his theory has practical applications for instruction in the classroom. Although Sternberg's theory contributed to our understanding of intelligence, it has received a great deal of criticism as well. In addition, other theories have since been proposed, extending our understanding in new directions.

Keywords Adaptability; Analytic Intelligence; Automaticity; Creative Intelligence; Environmental Adaptation; Environmental Selection; Environmental Shaping; Knowledge Acquisition Components; Metacomponents; Performance Components; Practical Intelligence; Relative Novelty; Self-Management; Synthetic Intelligence

Educational Theory: Sternberg's Triarchic Theory


Robert Sternberg's lifelong interest in the study of intelligence began as a child in elementary school in the 1950s. Thinking back upon his classroom experience, he writes, "I knew exactly what our school psychologist looked like. Whenever she entered the classroom, I would panic: her grand entry meant that we were about to take an IQ test, and the mere thought of it left me petrified" (Sternberg, 1998. p. xi). Needless to say, Sternberg never performed well on tests of intelligence, but his "failure" fueled a curiosity that would ultimately define his career. When he reached graduate school, he discovered that little was truly known about intelligence:

[A]mong the scientific disciplines the field of intelligence has not been notable for rapid progress, either in theory or in practical application. Tests, for the most part, look pretty much the way they did when Alfred Binet…invented the first one at the turn of the [twentieth] century (Sternberg, 1988, p. 4).

Sternberg's triarchic theory of intelligence shed new light on a neglected but important field of study.

Five Red Herrings

Before delving into the specifics of Sternberg's theory, it is perhaps important to better understand the context in which it was developed. As Sternberg (1988) himself explained, progress in the field had been thwarted by a number of obstacles, all of which set the stage for new developments. These obstacles – or what Sternberg (1988) refers to as red herrings – are outlined briefly below.

• Complexity and Artificiality: According to Sternberg (1988), psychometricians had been looking for intelligence in all the wrong places. Rather than defining it simply, and in such a way that it had real-world applicability – psychologists devised complex tests to measure obscure skills. Ultimately, the intelligence tests they created had "little if anything to do with the kinds of thinking people do in their everyday lives" (Sternberg, 1988, p. 4).

• Politicization . Politics, Sternberg (1988) argues, should never be mixed with science. Both are important, but each should 'play out' in their separate spheres. Because the study of intelligence has been influenced by politics, educators and psychologists have focused on what Sternberg calls peripheral issues – such as heredity, race, and social-class – before spending time developing a solid theoretical base. "Such issues may be worthy of study and debate, but preferably after the basic research on the nature of intelligence is well under way" (Sternberg, 1988, p. 6).

• Technology without science. In most fields, technology is driven by science. In the study of intelligence, the opposite is true. Intelligence tests were developed over a century ago, and have been in widespread use ever since, despite the absence of foundational research. Intelligence testing has been a profitable adventure, thus educators and psychologists continued to use it, without any clear understanding of what they are measuring (Sternberg, 1988).

• Single entity. Many tests purport to measure intelligence as a single entity – a one-dimensional construct that captures intelligence in a single number. Sternberg (1988, 1991) argues, however, that researchers have long suggested intelligence is multi-dimensional. "There is little evidence that any scientist studying intelligence – past or present – actually believed it is just a single thing" (Sternberg, 1988, p. 9).

• Fixed entity. Those who produce and administer intelligence tests would like the public to believe that intelligence is a fixed entity, that it doesn't change over time. Tests scores wouldn't be helpful, after all, if they changed every time a person took the test (Sternberg, 1988). Evidence suggests, however, that intelligence can be increased; through instruction and activity, individuals can improve their intelligence.

In addition to these five red herrings, Sternberg sought to develop a model of intelligence that didn't fall victim to what he viewed as misguided assumptions driving current tests and theories of intelligence. Most tests of intelligence are timed, for example, implying a relationship between intelligence and speed. According to Sternberg (1988) however, evidence suggests that a reflective cognitive style is associated with greater intelligence than an impulsive one (Sternberg, 1988). Similarly, intelligence is often associated with verbal ability; people with large vocabularies who are able to read and comprehend vast amounts of information quickly are assumed to be smarter than individuals who know fewer words or who read more slowly. Sternberg (1988) argues, however, that it is the way an individual uses his resources – knowing which things to read and knowing when to read quickly or slowly – more than a general ability to read quickly, that determines intelligence. Similarly, it is not the size of one's vocabulary that necessarily determines how smart someone is, but rather, their ability to decipher meaning within context. Finally, Sternberg (1988) argues that people use multiple strategies to solve problems, and no test can measure all such strategies.

Sternberg's Definition of Intelligence

Sternberg's first task was to define intelligence more broadly. Intelligence had largely become associated with academic achievement and he wanted to show that intelligence was about much more than simply success in school. For Sternberg, then, intelligence is the equivalent of self-management:

Intelligence is not just some dry and dusty quality of mind that is brought to bear when we take IQ tests or try to solve complicated algebra or physics problems. Rather, it is a quality that we use continually in our everyday lives – on the job, in our interpersonal relationships, in decision making. In this context, intelligence can be understood as mental self-management – the manner in which we order and make sense of the events that take place around and within us (Sternberg, 1988, p. x).

Thus, intelligence, he argued, is a cultural concept invented to explain why some people succeed in their environments and others do not. Citing examples of people who succeed in school, but not in 'real-life,' and vice versa, Sternberg argued there must be more to intelligence than is currently measured by most tests. Thus, he identified three profiles of intelligence, outlined below:

Analytical Intelligence: Analytical intelligence, Sternberg argues, is the type of intelligence most often measured on traditional tests of IQ (Fujitsubo, 1998). Students who do well in school, or earn high scores on achievement tests, are typically analytical thinkers. They are good at analysis, comparing and contrasting, evaluation, and explanation.

Creative (Synthetic) Intelligence: The second type of intelligence, what Sternberg (1988, 1998, 2001) alternately refers to in the literature as both creative and synthetic intelligence, taps a different set of skills than those described above. Those who create, design, imagine, and suppose are synthetic thinkers; thus, a graduate student who didn't score high on the GRE, for example, but later proved to be adept at research, is one who is more creatively intelligent than analytically intelligent.

Practical Intelligence: Finally, Sternberg (1988, 1998, 2001) argued that intelligence also involves the ability to apply what one has learned. Those who are skilled at using and implementing what has been learned in the classroom to their everyday experience are individuals who are practically skilled. An analytic student might be able to compare and contrast different business plans, a creative student might be able to develop a new business plan, but a practical student is one who can make a business plan work in 'real life.'

Although these three different profiles were presented as if an individual has strengths in just one area, Sternberg (1991) argues that people typically have a combination of all three. Furthermore, the balance among the three might change over time, so that someone who is analytical earlier in life, becomes more creative as time passes. Intelligence, he argues, is as much about knowing when to use which ability, as it is about strength in any one area (Sternberg, 1991).

Evolution of Triarchic Theory

Although Sternberg (1985, 1988) identified three profiles of intelligence or types of abilities, the name of his theory – triarchic intelligence – evolved from his understanding of how intelligence manifests itself. That is, he wanted to better understand how certain factors – internal factors, experiential factors, and environmental factors – impact intelligent behavior in all three types of people described above. Thus, he titled his theory triarchic because he was attempting to answer the three questions outlined below.

What is the Relationship of Intelligence to the Internal World of the Individual?

Of the three questions posed, the first – the relationship of intelligence to the internal world of the individual – is the one that has received the most research attention. How a person thinks, or the mental processes she uses when confronted with a problem, are obvious...

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