Our testing culture may be making us smarter but at the expense of the wisdom and creativity we’ll need to flourish in our world.

By Robert J. Sternberg

The 20th century saw an enormous, almost unbelievable, increase in intelligence quotient (IQ) scores around the world. IQs rose 30 points. Such a long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores is called the Flynn effect (Flynn, 2012). Educators were unaware of the rise in scores because test publishers restandardize their IQ tests from time to time; if the average score rises, they reset that average automatically to 100. Now, in the 21st century, IQs are rising in some places but not in others.

So why did IQs rise so much in the 20th century? Many explanations, such as improved nutrition, improved technology, reduction in disease, more and better education, more educational toys, and so forth, have been suggested (Neisser, 1998). But no one really knows. A consensus view is that multiple factors were involved. One reason may be that students have been tested more — and testing improves the skills on which students are tested.

Practice makes . . . better

For many years, psychologists have been aware of practice effects: improvements in performance on tests as a result of increased practice on the tests (Gregory, 2013). Historically, practice effects have been viewed somewhat negatively, as though there’s something wrong with a test on which one’s performance would improve with practice. On the contrary, however, almost any skill will improve with practice, and there’s no reason to believe that the cognitive abilities measured by IQ and related tests would be any different (Detterman & Sternberg, 1982).

There used to be a misguided view that improvements in IQ and related cognitive skills were inherently at odds with the belief that intelligence is partially heritable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Average heights in the United States have increased greatly from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations although height is among the most highly heritable of physical traits (with a heritability of about .9, higher than any psychologist has claimed for intelligence). So heritable traits are not necessarily fixed traits.

Some psychologists believe that almost any skill can be highly enhanced through deliberate practice — practice aimed at improving performance by reflecting on what one has done well and not so well — with the aim of improving oneself (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). But the distinction between learning and testing is misguided — that is, the idea that testing doesn’t have or shouldn’t have an effect on learning. Testing actually can improve learning because it provides practice to test takers in retrieving the tested material (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). From this point of view, standardized testing may be one reason why IQ scores have increased.

The trouble with tests

Although one might argue that IQ testing has decreased rather than increased over the years, it all depends on what one means by “IQ testing.” Scores on tests such as the ACT and SAT are actually highly correlated with scores on tests of IQ (Frey & Detterman, 2004; Koenig, Frey, & Detterman, 2008). In other words, taking SAT- or ACT-like tests may help increase IQ-like abilities through practice effects.

Our society relies heavily on standardized testing to decide which students should and shouldn’t have opportunities for advancement (Sternberg, 1988, 1997). For better or worse, testing has changed our society irreversibly because many of our leaders have had the opportunity to lead, in part, because of their test scores (Sternberg, 2003). Put another way, gaining access to most leadership positions is easier if one has a degree from a highly selective college requiring stellar test scores than if one has no degree at all or one from an institution that receives little respect.

When we think about testing and “for better or worse,” we often try to determine which it is — better or worse. But this may be the wrong way of framing the problem. Although many books disparage standardized tests (see Kamenetz, 2015; Sternberg, 1988), we should, perhaps, be grateful that such tests help students practice and improve their cognitive abilities, including their verbal and math skills measured by IQ tests and their cousins, such as the SAT and the ACT. These abilities are important, not only for school but also for many tasks in life (Deary & Whalley, 2008).

But many things in life that have good effects have, at the same time, some not-so-good effects. For example, many of the medicines used to treat serious illnesses have side effects, sometimes even fatal ones. Likewise, the same weapons that protect a nation also can destroy it. Standardized testing may have unintended negative consequences that should make educators wonder whether those tests are as useful as society thinks they are.

When we’re rewarded for responding to stimuli in a particular way, the probability of a given response increases (Skinner, 1965). But that kind of response may crowd out other responses. Becoming an expert in the skills required for taking multiple-choice tests may crowd out the skills needed for other life challenges — namely, those required for creative and wise thinking.

More than one way to think

I define creative thinking as that which produces a novel, surprising, and useful idea or product. I define wise thinking as that which seeks a common good by balancing one’s own interests with other people’s and with larger interests, over the long as well as the short term, through the use of positive ethical values (Sternberg, 1985, 2003). Although intelligence refers here to the usual narrow and traditional sense of IQ and related analytical skills, there are broader and perhaps better definitions (Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985).

Creative and wise thinking differ in many respects from the kinds of thinking required for getting high scores on tests of traditional cognitive skills. The differences are summarized in Figure 1. We’ll look at several of them below.


Intelligent thinking is largely convergent. There’s a right answer — and, on some tests, it’s A, B, C, or D. Creative thinking is largely divergent. There are many possible and even good answers, although there may be no one “right” answer. For example, what would happen to a society that closed all its schools? With wise thinking, the terms of convergence and divergence really don’t apply. First, it’s dialectical: What constitutes a wise answer to a problem differs over time. For example, many of the activities that wise parents provide for children today — such as reading to their children — differ from those that wise parents offered in the early Middle Ages (reading wasn’t as available then). Second, wise thinking is dialogical: What constitutes a wise answer differs by place. Exposing children to music and especially dance is generally valued in Western cultures but is generally forbidden in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Problems requiring intelligence are usually well-structured; there are one or more correct paths to a solution. Creative problems are usually ill-structured. There’s no clear path to a solution and, in some cases, there may be no path to a solution at all. There are as many ways to write a novel, dream up a scientific experiment, or paint a picture as there are novelists, scientists, and artists. And there certainly are no clear paths to wisdom. Unfortunately, few people find any path at all.

Problems requiring intelligence generally don’t depend on context. The right answer to a mathematics problem, vocabulary question, or syllogism is not context-dependent. In fact, people’s syllogistic reasoning is often impaired by their emotional responses to different contexts. For example, all rich people are cheaters; all cheaters are haters; are all rich people haters? The conclusion is logically valid although the conclusion is factually incorrect. If people don’t like the conclusion, they may view it as illogical, even if it’s entirely logical.

Creative thinking, however, is highly context-dependent. Claude Monet’s paintings were creative in his mid-19th-century context, but the neo-Impressionist artists along Newbury Street in Boston today don’t rise to his level, in part because Monet got there first in coinventing Impressionism. Wisdom-based problems are also highly context-dependent. The right thing to do as a political leader, or as a school administrator, for that matter, depends on the context in which one operates. The same rule regarding practice of religion that may get an administrator promoted in a parochial school may get her fired in a public school.

Solving the problems in our homes, communities, nation, and world requires more than intelligence.

Problems requiring general intelligence usually require little or no originality. (No serious psychologist has claimed that conventional intelligence tests measure original thinking.) In contrast, originality is a core component of creativity. You would not be asked to draw a picture of your ideal house or to design a scientific experiment or to write an alternative ending to a well-known short story on an intelligence test, but you might be asked to do so on a test of creative thinking. And wise solutions are elusive because they require originality, as Solomon showed so many years ago, or at least so it’s said, when he figured out how to tell which of two women was the true mother of a baby.

Problems requiring intelligence depend, of course, on knowledge. Crystallized intelligence — which we can define as the ability to use learned skills, general knowledge, and experience to solve a problem — is essentially a measure of knowledge. It can be measured by tests of vocabulary and general information. Even fluid intelligence — which refers to the capacity to think logically and solve problems in new situations, independent of acquired knowledge — is heavily dependent on knowledge. For example, even problems with abstract figures (problems that include squares, triangles, circles, and so on) require knowledge of how to think with such figures. Interestingly, the Flynn effect is much larger for fluid intelligence (reasoning with geometric forms) than for crystallized intelligence (knowing a lot of vocabulary words), suggesting somewhat counterintuitively that increases in education increase fluid intelligence more than crystallized intelligence.

Knowledge can help, but also interfere with, the creative process (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). People who get comfortable with thinking or doing things in a certain way may be reluctant to change their way of thinking or acting. In wisdom, knowledge helps so long as it’s relevant to multiple perspectives and not just to one’s own perspective.

Why does it all matter?

Given that education has become, in large part, preparation for standardized tests and that standardized tests don’t measure or attempt to measure creativity, why should anyone care if our societal focus on intelligence inadvertently reduces the importance of creativity and wisdom, as well as their levels among our children? There are three reasons to care.

First, in everyday life, creativity is at least as important as, and arguably more important than, general intelligence. We’d still be in the Stone Age were it not for human creativity. When we think of creativity, we sometimes think of people like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Amadeus Mozart, or Marie Curie, but in reality, we all need creativity every day of our lives. Children use creativity to figure out how to persuade their parents to buy toys, and their parents use creativity to figure out how to maintain parental control in the face of their children’s demands for new toys. Any time we have an original thought, even for how to get from one place to another, we’re thinking creatively. And, of course, creativity is what brought me the ideas for this article, what led to the computer on which I wrote it, and what led to the idea for the journal that’s publishing it. On a broader scale, look at the issue of antibiotic resistance: We will need creativity to invent new antibiotics because the ones we’re using are quickly fading in usefulness as antibiotic-resistant bacteria proliferate.

Second, one might argue that in today’s world, wisdom exceeds both creativity and intelligence in importance. It’s easy to point out intelligent leaders and candidates for political leadership, but it’s far more challenging to identify wise leaders and candidates. Many political leaders around the world, including in the United States, attended prestigious colleges and universities that admit only very intelligent students. But how many of them would you classify as wise? Similarly, in our schools, intelligent leadership is more common than wise leadership.

It’s easy to point out intelligent leaders and candidates for political leadership, but it’s far more challenging to identify wise leaders and candidates.

The world faces enormous challenges — global warming, nuclear proliferation, territorial disputes, religious disputes, and terrorism — and we’ll need wisdom to resolve them. Take, as an example, inventing new antibiotics. Once a given antibiotic has served its purpose, consumers stop using it, so it’s not very profitable for the company, as compared to, say, cholesterol-lowering drugs, which companies can sell to consumers again and again. It will take wisdom to provide the incentives and wherewithal for companies to reinvest in antibiotics. The problem is that smart people can be foolish (Sternberg, 2002): They may fail to use their intelligence in service of a common good, such as by providing the lifesaving but not necessarily highly profitable antibiotics society will need in the long term.

Finally, solving the problems in our homes, communities, nation, and world requires more than intelligence. It requires a balance of creativity, intelligence, and wisdom: creativity to generate new ideas, intelligence to vet the quality of the ideas, and wisdom to ensure that the ideas serve a common good (Sternberg, 2003).

Cultivating what’s important

It’s not enough for schools to teach and test in ways that only develop and reward general intelligence. Teachers can teach and assess students for creativity and wisdom as well as for general intelligence and knowledge base (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2007; Sternberg, Jarvin, & Grigorenko, 2009). For example, they might ask students what the world would be like today had the American Revolution not occurred (creativity) or whether the deaths resulting from revolutions can ever be justified (wisdom). If you want to teach for wisdom, first of all, role-model it. Second, show how solutions to problems that may be helpful at one time (e.g., raising interest rates) may be harmful at another time. Third, ask students, when they think about large real-world problems such as climate change, whether the solutions they pose will help to achieve a common good, and whether the solutions are as positive in the long term as they appear to be in the short term.

If we don’t start putting these ideas into practice, we and our world will suffer for it, perhaps irretrievably. Our world would be a safe and wonderful place for most of us to live in if only our creativity and wisdom had improved in the last century the same way our intelligence did.


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ROBERT J. STERNBERG (rjs487@cornell.edu) is professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Originally published in December 2016/January 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (4), 66-71.

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