Posted by: darcymullin | February 3, 2012

Using the Right Brain

Right now I am reading Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind – Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future”.  It is a fascinating read.  It also addresses some of the questions that have been perplexing me for some time.   A couple of my recent posts have addressed the issue of letter grades.  I have also been involved in a number of discussions around the topic.  For the most part people are on the same page when it comes to letter grades, but with one unresolved question.

What about Universities?

Without letter grades how will can Universities differentiate between students?

The only answer I have to that question is…”It’s their problem, not the problem of Public Education.  They should change to meet the needs of a new generation of students.”  I’m ok with that answer, but I know that it is not very plausible.  Long term perhaps, but that kind of systemic change will not happen overnight. To be honest, it has left me wanting for more.

“A Whole New Mind” offers some interesting alternatives to the letter grade and percentage system.  According to Pink the correlation between IQ and career success is somewhere between 4-10%.  I know that IQ and letter grades do not necessarily correlate, but it does get me thinking.  Using the IQ data as a springboard Yale Professor Robert Sternberg created an alternative to the SAT called the Rainbow Project.

In Sternberg’s test are given 5 blank New Yorker cartoons – and must craft humorous captions for each one. The also must write a narrative, using as their guide only a title supplied by the test givers (sample: The Octopus’s Sneakers).  Although still in the experimental stages, the Rainbow Project is TWICE (emphasis mine) as successful as the SAT in predicting how well students do in college.  What’s more, the gap in performance between white student and racial minorities evident on the SAT narrows considerably on this test.

I’m not about to suggest that all universities should institute the Rainbow exam, but it does open the discussion for different forms of entrance exams to universities.   It does suggest that the traditional ways of measuring student success and learning have not changed at the rate that society has.  The current system of letter grades has been around for decades.

How many effective institutions have remained unchanged in that time?



  1. The start of a revolution, Darcy – great post.

    I love the imagery of the rainbow – no two are alike and the beauty differs with the degree of the refractive dispersion of sunlight in drops of rain (wikipedia is a ‘humanities guy’s best friend!). There is no set rainbow; each is a response to the environmental context at that moment – true creation (not stock, rote response). Use this analysis as a difference between the SAT and the Rainbow Project.

    I absolutely agree with what you are saying and reinforcing through Steingberg’s example: that we need to have conversations and agree on the student outcomes we value – and then create systems that can deliver.

    What strikes me about Steinberg’s new paradigm is that there is a focus on creativity and expression through narrative. Students are given something for the first time and asked to formulate product that ‘extends’ what they are given.

    What we need to provide to universities (because really, we have to initiate the change) are assessment tools that emphasize the following: only those who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed.

    The Rainbow Project asks students to go beyond what is known, and stretch in new and unexpected directions – we need to do the same thing

  2. Gino,

    Eloquent response (as always). I think in many ways we are beginning to push the boundaries and are questioning the paradigms we have traditionally held on to. I think your program at JO and the Project that SD #43 is undertaking are examples of us allowing creativity into our schools in meaningful ways. By making the change at our end, universities will eventually have to follow suit.

  3. I wonder if the traditional path and criteria for getting into universities (straight out of high school with top marks) will be superseded by something more varied and more reflective of students’ experiences. Some universities are already using e-portfolios as part of their application process, and most post-secondary institutions have supported unconventional applicants (homeschoolers, mature students) with prior learning assessments, interview applications, and other methods of assessment/application. Seems like it’s overdue.

  4. In a previous incarnation as a manager and recruiter of entry level engineers, the only grade-related criterion I used was “never hire a 4.0”. The schools reputation, the course-work they had taken were important, and everyone had to pass a test of basic skills, but the most important criteria were the subjective cues I picked up while administering the tests.

  5. I love your approach, seriously! It is perfect approach for a father of a very young kids. I can assure that your point of view will be changed gradually as your kids will be more and more close to the age of a university.
    If goals of public education will be changed with no correlation with the high education change or no change, I will tell you what you will do: you will hire teachers to prepare your kids to pass the exams, you will say to yourself: I really helped to my kids to engage the creativity with their right side of a brain, now I am helping them to become a suitable persons for this left-side-brain-carrier-builders society.

    • Bess, thanks for taking the time to comment, but I don’t agree. Pink argues that left brain thinking is going to be automated and creativity is key for future happiness and success and I agree with him. True, I do have young kids, but I hope to always encourage them to be creative and I won’t ever “prepare” them for tests.

  6. […] Using the Right Brain ~ By Darcy Mullin […]

  7. […] Using the Right Brain ~ By Darcy Mullin […]

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