Creativity and Ethical Mindset: These are what we should be assessing in learning, PK-16, in addition to analytic intelligence. So says renowned author and academic, and former President of the American Psychological Association Robert Sternberg.

Important: All slides above are Sternberg’s, from his presentation today at SSATB.

Sternberg matters, and deserves even wider and deeper appreciation and influence in PK-12 education than he already has, and I am sometimes surprised about why he is not more frequently a reference point in 21st century learning. It may be that his work has been primarily in post-secondary that K-12 folks overlook him, but as he said today and as I believe firmly, in almost every way his works is entirely suited for applications in our domain.

Ray Diffley, the trailblazing Director of Admissions for Choate-Rosemary Hall, introduced Sternberg, and labeled him the single most important thinker on expanding and revamping educational assessment in the nation today.

Sternberg, who is in his sixties and has 20 month old triplets (!), couldn’t actually attend in person, due to his airplane’s equipment failure, but his virtual contribution worked just fine.

A few observations about Sternberg, but before you read any further, be sure to view the slides, all of them, if you haven’t seen him present. This session was a very valuable and sweeping overview of his essential themes and thoughts, and the slides convey a very high proportion of what he said in this session.

1. He clearly deeply cares about kids, his own kids and all others, and works always from a foundation of personal experience, his own learning journey.

2. He has walked this talk– he doesn’t just research how assessment can change, or theories of what it could be, but again and again at different universities and schools he has been implementing these assessments. Rarely do you find someone who has done more to blend theorizing and implementation.

3. Expanding assessment is both practical and idealistic.

The most practical usage of admissions testing is to predict performance (as measured by GPA) in the schools to which test-takers are applying, and the research is compelling: adding assessment of creativity particularly, and practical and ethical intelligence also, improves the predictive power of testing. See below. But, it is also idealistic: it makes for a better society, because it better assesses traits and skills we know are important, as important in many cases as analytic intelligence, but which have been sadly saddled with second class citizenship because of their greater difficulty of assessment.

4. In the discussion which followed the presentation, (and hence, not in the slides), Sternberg was asked by one of my think tank colleagues: If current, analytic assessing tests were to expanded in just one particular way– just one– where would you encourage us to begin: which one?

Sternberg’s answer was creativity:

  • because it is the singularly most significant in improving predictability of school success (GPA);
  • because it is almost common sense that in choosing who we admit to new school environments we would want to select those with skills at effectively responding to new environments, which is part of what creativity is;
  • and because we all recognize how critically our society today demands creativity and innovation skills and aptitudes.

He hastened to add, and he was quite emphatic on this point, that by creativity measurement he did not mean, indeed he excluded, the Torrance Creativity Test, and was somewhat dismissive and derisive in tone of testing of divergent thinking wherein “you have to come up with as many uses of a paper clip as possible.” Instead, he directed us to some of his sample creativity questions, which you can find in the slides (one is below).

It has to be said that creativity testing assessment is laborious, and Sternberg doesn’t shy away from this. You can’t use Multiple choice for assessing creativity, he explained and emphasized, and he knows this from having tried and tried and tried. Again and again, multiple choice testing of creativity just reverts back to IQ correlations, rather than true creativity. Only performance assessments will be effective here.

You have to have human graders– automated computer scoring of creativity simply does not fly. You assess creativity by its quality, task appropriateness, and novelty, he explained, and novelty, in particular, is something computer algorithms cannot scan and parse.

5. But if we could add a second element, in addition to creativity, let’s add ethical judgement. Sternberg said several times that the lack of ethical judgement, and wisdom more generally, is deeply hurting society. He was quick to point out that this addition will not improve GPA predictability, but then said it will, in a more abstract way, be predictive of successful life. He says that when businesses and business leaders fail or go awry, or politicians, scientists, and so many others, it is rarely due to low IQ– it is due to poor judgement and a lack of ethics.

To my observation, the audience was entirely rapt listening to Sternberg, and very much eager to consider the implications and applications of his wisdom. After he concluded the chatter was electric. This is something that this audience cares about, deeply.

We can do this; we can expand assessment to more that is meaningful. It is not an easy thing to do: it is expensive in the precious resources of time and money. But let us not choose the easy over the important; let us not choose the exclusive focus upon the cheap to assess analytic over the essential to evaluate creative and ethical domains of intelligence, judgment, and wisdom.