Robert Sternberg is a major figure in cognitive psychology; he is IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale University and was president of the American Psychological Association in 2003/04.

His theory of mental self-government and model of thinking styles (1999) are becoming well known and are highly developed into functions, forms, levels, scope and leanings. He deals explicitly with the relationship between thinking styles and methods of instruction, as well as the relationship between thinking styles and methods of assessment. He also makes major claims for improving student performance via improved pedagogy.

Sternberg is keen to distinguish between style and ability. An ability ‘refers to how well someone can do something’. A style ‘refers to how someone likes to do something’. A style therefore is ‘a preferred way of using the abilities one has. In his book on Thinking styles (1999), Sternberg used the two terms ‘thinking styles’ and ‘learning styles’ as synonyms.

Sternberg was making clear distinctions between learning, thinking and cognitive styles. In more detail, he conceptualised ‘learning styles’ as how an individual prefers to learn by reading, for instance, or by attending lectures. ‘Thinking styles’ are characterised as ‘how one prefers to think about material as one is learning it or after one already knows it’ (Sternberg and Zhang 2001, vii). ‘Cognitive styles’ are described as the ‘ways of cognizing (sic) the information’ (Sternberg and Zhang 2001, vii) by being impulsive and jumping to conclusions, or by being reflective. Cognitive styles are considered by Sternberg to be closer to personality than either thinking or learning styles.

Sternberg’s theory of thinking/learning styles is derived from his theory of mental self-government, which is based on the metaphorical assumption (for which no evidence is offered) that the kinds of government we have in the world are not merely arbitrary or random constructions, but rather ‘in a certain sense are mirrors of the mind … on this view, then, governments are very much extensions of individuals’ (1999, 148).

Sternberg (1988, 1993, 1997) classified individuals according to their ways of thinking into thirteen way of thinking, >and distributed it into five main categories

His theory is constructed from

  • Three functions of government

    Legislative, executive and judicial
  • Four forms

    Monarchical, hierarchical, oligarchic and anarchic
  • Two levels

    Global and local
  • Scope of government

    Internal and external;
  • Leanings (trends)

    Liberal and conservative.
Each of these aspects of government is considered necessary for the management of the self in everyday life.

First: the ways of thinking in terms of the FORM:
  • 1. Monarchic style, individuals are characterized by going towards a single goal all the time, they are flexible, . They prefer works that highlight their individuality (Monarchic people are single-minded and driven by whatever they are single-minded about, and do not let anything get in the way of them solving a problem. They tend to be ‘motivated by a single goal or need at a time.) (Sternberg, 1994).
  • 2. Hierarchic style: the owners of this method tend to do many things at one time. They put their goals in the form of hierarchy depending on their importance and priority. They are realistic, logical and organized in solving problems and decision-making. (Sternberg & Wagner, 1991).
  • 3. Anarchic style; they tend to adopt a method of random and non-compliant in a particular order to solve the problems, their performance is better when the tasks and positions that are assigned to them are disorganized, and they are confused (Sternberg & Wagner, 1991, 2006, Tayeb, 2006).
  • 4. Oligarchic style: these individuals are characterized by being nervous, confused and they have many conflicting goals, all of these goals are equally important for them. (Sternberg 2006 , Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1995).
Second: The ways of thinking in terms OF FUNCTION:
  • 1. Legislative style: they prefer the problems which require them to devise new strategies and to create their own laws and they enjoy giving commands. (Legislative people like to come up with their own ways of doing things and prefer to decide for themselves what they will do and how they will do it. This style is particularly conducive to creativity) (Abu Gado and Nofal, 2007; Monthly, 2006, Zhang, 2004
  • 2. Executive style: The advocators of this method prefer to use the ways that already exists to solve problems, and the application and implementation of laws. They do not start work until they know when? Why, and Where? And Who? …. If he gets these answers, he will be able to start work.( Executive people ‘like to follow rules and prefer problems that are pre-structured or prefabricated … executive stylists do what they are told and often do it cheerfully’ (1999, 21). They are implementers who like to follow as well as to enforce rules. They can often ‘tolerate the kinds of bureaucracies that drive more legislative people batty’ )
  • 3. Judicial style: The advocators of this method care about the assessment of the stages of the work and the results. They often ask questions such as: Why? What is the reason? What is assumed, (Bernardo et al., 2002).They analyze the main idea in the scientific stance and hate experimentation, evaluate the work of others, and hate to be evaluated by others. They prefer problems that allow them to analyze and evaluate the existing objects and ideas (Judicial people ‘like activities such as writing critiques, giving opinions, judging people and their work, and evaluating programs’ (1999, 21). They like to evaluate rules and procedures; they prefer ‘problems in which they can analyse and evaluate things and ideas .)
Third: Methods of Thinking In Terms Of LEVEL:
  • 1. Global style: They prefer to deal with broad , abstract and relatively large and. high-level concepts. They prefer change and innovation, and vague positions. They often ignore the details. (Global individuals ‘prefer to deal with relatively large and abstract issues. They ignore or don’t like details, and prefer to see the forest rather than the trees’)
  • 2. Local style: The advocators of this method characterized by being attracted by the practical situations. And described by Sternberg (Sternberg) as subjective because they are putting an account of everything and they do not leave anything to chance or luck. (Sternberg & Wagner, 1991, Sternberg, 2002).( Local individuals ‘like concrete problems requiring working with details. The danger is they may lose the forest for the trees’)
Fourth: The ways of thinking in terms of the TREND:
  • 1. Liberal style: The followers of this method tend to go beyond the laws and measures, and the tendency to be ambiguous and unfamiliar positions. They are seeking through the tasks undertaken by them to bypass laws that imposed upon them, whether at work or in school in order to bring the biggest possible change ( Liberal individuals ‘like to go beyond existing rules and procedures, to maximise change, and to seek situations that are somewhat ambiguous) ((Sternberg2006, Bernardo et al, 2002).
  • 2. Conservative style: they prefer situations that are familiar in life, and they are characterized by diligence and order, they follow the rules and procedures that exist, and they refuse change and would prefer the least possible change .( Conservative individuals ‘like to adhere to existing rules and procedures, minimise change, avoid ambiguous situations where possible, and stick with familiar situations in work and professional life’) .
Fifth: The Ways of Thinking In Terms Of SCOPE:
  • 1. External style: followers of this method tend to work, interact and collaborate with others within the team, and they have a sense of social contact with others comfortably and easily. (External individuals ‘tend to be extroverted, outgoing and people-oriented. Often, they are socially sensitive and … like working with other people wherever possible’ )
  • 2. Internal Style: The followers of this style prefer to work individually; they are introvert and tend to be lonely. They are directed toward work or task, and they are characterized by internal focus, and they prefer the analytical and creative problems. (Zhang, 1999).
The 15 principles of thinking styles
Sternberg makes 15 general points about this theory which he feels are essential to its understanding and these are listed briefly below.

  • 1. Styles are preferences in the use of abilities, not abilities themselves.
  • 2. Match between styles and abilities creates a synergy that is more than the sum of its parts.
  • 3. Styles are variable across tasks and situations; for example, influence of weather, company, etc.
  • 4. People differ in the strength of their preferences.
  • 5. People differ in their stylistic flexibility.
  • 6. Styles are socialised – that is, they are learned; for instance, by children observing role models.
  • 7. Styles can vary across the lifespan – that is, styles, like abilities, are fluid rather than fixed, and dynamic rather than static entities; for example, the style needed by a new recruit is very different from that needed by a senior partner in a law firm.
  • 8. Styles are measurable.
  • 9. Styles are teachable.
  • 10. Styles valued at one time may not be valued at another. (His claim is that different styles are required for different levels or kinds of responsibility in an organisation, which seems remarkably similar to the ninth principle.)
  • 11. Styles valued in one place may not be valued in another.
  • 12. Styles are not, on average, good or bad – it is a questio of fit.
  • 13. A style may fit well in one context, but poorly or not at all in another.
  • 14. We confuse stylistic fit with levels of ability.
  • 15. The consequence is that people and institutions tend to value other people and institutions that are like themselves. (But the question needs to be asked: do we not at times also value people precisely because their style is very different from our own?)
The significance for pedagogy of Sternberg’s research on thinking styles can be summarised in five brief propositions which are of a very general nature.

• *Teachers should use a variety of teaching methods (eg lectures, group discussions).

• *Teachers should use a variety of assessment methods (eg multiple-choice questions, essays, projects).

• *Teachers should provide students with an understanding of different thinking styles and should themselves be aware of the styles they either encourage or punish.

• *Teachers should know about gender and cross-cultural differences in thinking styles.

• *Teachers should use extracurricular activities to enhance the quality of teaching and learning (see Zhang and Sternberg 2001)

The fifth recommendation does not appear to stem from Sternberg’s own research, but from the work of others on creative thinking.

Sternberg is convinced that his theory is important for pedagogy and has carried out a series of studies of thinking/learning styles in both secondary and higher education .

‘The key principle [of the theory] is that in order for students to benefit maximally from instruction and assessment, at least some of each should match their styles of thinking’.

He is convinced that different methods of instruction work best for different styles of thought and produces a table (reproduced here as Table 1) to show the various types of compatibility.

His argument is that teachers need the flexibility to vary their teaching style to suit students’ different styles of thought and that few methods of instruction are likely to be optimal for everyone.

different methods of assessment tend to benefit different thinking styles and produces a table to exemplify the connections (see Table 2).

1. Thinking styles and methods of instruction
Method of instruction Style(s) most compatible with method of instruction
Lecture Executive, hierarchical
Thought-based questioning Judicial, legislative
Cooperative (group) learning External
Problem solving of given problems Executive
Projects Legislative
Small group: students discussing ideas External, executive
Small group: students answering factual questions External, judicial
Reading Internal, hierarchical

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