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All Kids Can Learn

September 16, 2013

By Robert J. Sternberg

As a young child, I performed miserably on the IQ tests my elementary school administered to us every couple of years. As a result, my teachers labeled me as a child who couldn’t really learn much. They treated me like I was stupid; I acted stupid; they were happy; I was happy they were happy; everyone was pretty happy about the whole thing. In fourth grade, I had a teacher, Mrs. Alexa, who believed I could learn. She treated me like I was smart. I wanted to make her happy, and I did. I switched from being a mediocre student to being a good one, and continued to be a good student thereafter.

The whole unhappy mess repeated itself when I started college. I wanted to study psychology to understand why I had done so poorly on IQ tests. I started with the introductory course. I got an F on the first test. My professor looked me in the eye and said, “There is a famous Sternberg in psychology, and it’s obvious there won’t be another one.” I ended up pulling a C in the course, which the professor referred to as a “gift.” Thirty-five years later, I was a professor of psychology at Yale and president of the American Psychological Association, the largest association of psychologists in the world.

All kids can learn. If students are not learning, then the problem is not that they can’t learn, but that we who are teachers are not teaching them in a way that meets their learning needs. As a professor, I worked with my colleagues on a research study that looked at how teachers teach and how students learn. Our main finding was very simple: Students performed better if they were taught, at least some of the time, in a way that matched the way they learned. In particular, they performed best if the instruction helped them to make the most of their strengths in learning, while simultaneously helping them to correct or compensate for their learning weaknesses.

Not all kids learn at the same rate or in the same way. For example, my adult son Seth always has been a practical learner. He needs to see how he can use in his life what he learns in school. My adult daughter Sara was a teacher’s dream: She always has been a memory and analytical learner -- the type who is easy to teach in a conventional way and who does well on standardized tests. I am a creative learner: I do well when I can construct my own learning, not when, as in my introductory-psychology course, I have to memorize books and lectures.

Similarly, some kids (and adults) are more visual in the way they learn, others more auditory, and still others more kinesthetic -- they have to do things actively with their hands in order to learn. There is no one “right” way to learn. The challenge for teachers and parents alike is to find out how their kids best learn and then help them make the most of their strengths and make up for their weaknesses.

If your children have common sense, flexibility in their thinking, a good work ethic, motivation to succeed, loyalty to their family and friends and school, a sense of responsibility, and a willingness to subordinate their own personal needs to those of a greater good, the question is not whether they will succeed, but rather, how they will succeed. There is no one road to success: Each child needs to find his or her own road and we, as parents and teachers, need to help.

Perhaps now you can understand why I believe access is so important in higher education. I would like to see all Wyoming students who want a college education get that education, whether at the University of Wyoming, one of our Wyoming community colleges, or a combination of the two. All students can learn, at some rate and in some way. The University of Wyoming needs to have minimum qualifications, but those qualifications should be with access in mind. And the qualifications should take into account that our goal is to educate future ethical citizen-leaders, not expert test-takers. We should admit students and educate them in ways that connect with the demands of the workforce and their personal lives and that will enable them to succeed, regardless of how, and how fast, they learn.

That’s what my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Alexa knew, and that’s why, with her help and the help of many teachers like her, I have the honor and privilege to serve today as the president of the University of Wyoming.

Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming.

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