Giving Cognition a Bad Name
Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or a relationship. But over the last few decades, cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under the No Child Left Behind Act and the federal Race to the Top initiative, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they've needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they've used IQ or other standardized-test scores (like the qualification test, known as the AFQT, that the armed forces use to determine eligibility) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From a rich heritage (consider the Latin origin of the word cognition : to come to know), we've devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.
As if that were not enough, there is now emerging on a number of fronts—nicely summarized in Paul Tough's most recent book, How Children Succeed —a belief that our nation's educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum, or on academic-intervention programs for the poor, we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character or personality, like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility. As much as or more than the cognitive, the argument goes, these are the qualities that account for success...
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