Practical knowledge for school success

Woman with a study groupKnowing how to allocate work time, how to prepare a paper, how to study for a test, and even how to talk to a teacher are but a few of the many skills a student needs in order to be successful in school. But even thought we expect students to acquire these “everyday” skills, many of them are not taught in any comprehensive way in school. Unfortunately, students who fail to acquire these skills often continue to perform poorly throughout their years in school.

Robert Sternberg, Lynn Okagaki and Alice S. Jackson, at Yale University, report on their Practical Intelligence for School (PIFS) program, which they believe can be of significant help in teaching the practical skills necessary for success in school. Sternberg et al., working with Howard Gardner and researchers at Harvard University, have developed a theory-based two-part curriculum. This curriculum is a synthesis of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and Sternberg’s triarchic theory of human intelligence. The Yale-developed portion of the curriculum discussed here is designed to teach skills useful across all content areas. This part of the program has been field tested in one middle school in a middle income suburb in Connecticut.

Practical knowledge

The curriculum (a student text and extensive teacher’s manual have been developed) is designed around three kinds of practical knowledge which these researchers consider critical. These include managing oneself, managing tasks and working with others. In learning to manage oneself, students are exposed to the concept of multiple intelligences. Students discuss different learning styles and learn how to use their own style to best advantage.

The second part of the course deals with managing tasks. This includes learning how to be organized, how to solve problems, how to break bad habits, how to manage time and how to seek help. This portion of the curriculum also involves learning how to understand questions, follow directions and take tests.

The third part of the curriculum involves learning how to cooperate with others. The concern here is with learning appropriate ways to participate in class discussions and includes learning how and when to respond or ask questions, learning to be considerate of others and learning to identify and solve communication problems.

The curriculum is intended to be taught by a content area teacher for two or three periods a week throughout an entire year. The lessons are designed around a set format. Teachers are provided with a description of the purpose of each lesson which includes the underlying theory or rationale for teaching it, as well as the materials, prerequisite skills and the time needed for the lesson. Teachers begin each lesson by explaining the concept being taught. Students are then engaged in discussing what they know about the topic, thereby affording teachers the opportunity to identify and correct, through subsequent discussion, any misconceptions the students may have. New information is presented next, either by lecture, discussion, questionnaire or through the text. Students then meet in small groups to use this new information in a variety of games, worksheets and other activities which encourage them to apply this new knowledge. Finally, students evaluate and critique what they’ve learned.

Teachable skills

Teachers involved in the Connecticut field test received six after-school inservice training sessions plus one full day session in theories of intelligence, strategies for teaching and problem solving. To develop plans and discuss concerns, five after-school meetings were conducted during the course of the semester-long trial.

One hundred 7th graders participated in the one semester field test. Three reading classes with a total of sixty-one students used the experimental PIFS curriculum three periods a week. Two other reading classes with a total of thirty-nine students followed the traditional basal reader curriculum. Because the field test was conducted in only one school and for only one semester, the conclusions are, of course, tentative. Nevertheless, preliminary results of posttests administered to measure the study habits and attitudes, as well as the learning and study skills of these students, indicate that this kind of practical knowledge is teachable.

Sternberg, et al. do concede, however, that it is not easy to teach. Teachers, they recognize, must not only subscribe to the underlying theory, they must also receive a significant amount of training. While data from the single field test indicates that PIFS has a positive effect on student attitudes and study skills, the program has not yet demonstrated that teaching this curriculum results in greater academic success. Further research is anticipated.

“Practical Intelligence for Success in School” Educational Leadership September 1990 Volume 48, Number 1, p. 35-39.

Published in ERN January/February 1991 Volume 4 Number 1


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