Education Opinion

Giving Non-Cognitive Outcomes Their Due

By Walt Gardner — September 12, 2012 2 min read
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It sometimes takes a celebrated author to bring to the public’s attention an issue that teachers have long known. I have reference now to Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed. His thesis is that non-cognitive skills matter more than cognitive abilities in determining how a young person’s life will turn out. Tough acknowledges that skills and knowledge (cognition) are important, but he believes that “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” (non-cognition) have been given short shrift (“Opting Out of the ‘Rug Rat Race,’ ” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8).

What to make of Tough’s view? Frankly, I’m surprised that the subject is only now in the limelight. When I was at UCLA in 1965 working on my teaching credential, we were required to read Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I (Cognitive Domain) and Handbook II (Affective Domain). We were taught that both domains deserved equal attention because long after knowledge and skills are forgotten, attitudes remain. Unfortunately, the accountability movement is concerned only with the former. This lopsided view shortchanges students. None of this is meant to minimize what Tough has written. But it’s important to put the issue in proper perspective.

More to the point, as I wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review on Sept. 9, no standardized test presently used in any state attempts to measure non-cognitive (affective) outcomes (“The Character Hypothesis”). That’s one reason why the value-added model will unavoidably label some good teachers as bad. I say that because there are teachers who leave an indelible positive imprint on their students but yet fall short in meeting cognitive goals. Unless equal weight is given to affective outcomes, schools will lose many good teachers who will be fired under new draconian rules.

What if reformers recognize their error and decide to measure these other outcomes? Is it possible to help teachers develop the wherewithal to reach their students? I think it’s a lot harder to do than it appears. Think of the task as similar to the effort being made by medical schools today to develop a bedside manner in their students. Some doctors in training seem to be born with the ability. By the same token, I believe that some teachers bring the educational version of this ability to the classroom. For all the others, the best that ed or med schools can do is to raise awareness.

In the final analysis, Tough’s greatest contribution is to warn about the dangers of not allowing students to learn lessons from their failures. The self-esteem movement has virtually eliminated this opportunity. I think students intuitively know when they have earned praise. Bestowing it on all students in order to avoid hurting their fragile egos does them a terrible disservice. The key is how students are permitted to fall down. If it is done with kindness, students will grow stronger. They’ll thank their teachers decades later. At least I do.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.