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Education Opinion

Name That Baby: Why ‘Non-Cognitive’ Factors Need a New Name

By Guest Blogger — April 15, 2015 5 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by members of Panorama Education, a Boston-based startup that uses data analytics to help teachers and administrators improve their schools. Hunter Gehlbach, Panorama’s Director of Research and an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guest posting today. He can be found on Twitter at @HunterGehlbach.

As a connoisseur of bad baby names, I thought I had heard the universe of ridiculous combinations. But then researchers looking at student traits above and beyond IQ and test-scores birthed a revolution in “non-cognitive” factors in education. This appellation seems a bit like naming one’s baby Not-Johnny or Anti-Sally. But as far as bad names go, “non-cognitive” is worse than being merely uninformative—it is misleading. After all, every non-cognitive factor I have encountered—self-regulation, grit, mindset, etc.—relies critically on cognition. “Non-cognitive” somehow manages to be vacuous and wrong at the same time.

One might (reasonably) argue that finding a better umbrella term in this context is trivial in comparison to naming actual babies. But names matter. Naming your baby Dennis or Denise ever-so-slightly bolsters the likelihood that he or she will become a dentist; if you name your son Louis, the odds are a little higher that he will reside in St. Louis.

How we name important concepts matters too. (Think about people’s perceptions of, and preferences for, “Obamacare” vs. “The Affordable Care Act.”) The “non-cognitive” label has real consequences for education. Setting aside this term’s irritating lack of precision, what actually matters is that it causes real problems across a range of areas. Three problems emanating from this term seem particularly worrisome.

First, we desperately need to know what works in education. The breadth and ambiguity of “non-cognitive” obscures this information. Increasing evidence suggests that some of these factors (but not all of them) represent powerful levers to improve students’ performance. We need to know which ones.

Research establishing which educational practices work is a tricky business. Results inevitably depend on how well the practices were executed, by which teacher, to which students, and in which school contexts. For researchers and practitioners to further improve these practices, they must be clearly defined and precisely measured. Lumping these practices into an undifferentiated “other” category with a label like “non-cognitive” makes it harder to discern which practices work and when. As a result, replicating and improving these practices becomes more challenging. Educational research is not a hard science; it is a very hard science. We do not need to make it harder.

Second, research funding fits into categories. If one seeks National Science Foundation funding under the category “non-cognitive,” five opportunities emerge. Seventeen exist for “neuroscience.” While other reasons for this disparity may exist, it doesn’t help that the National Science Foundation treats non-cognitive factors as a single unit. By contrast, they categorize neuroscience into subspecies such as computational and cognitive neuroscience.

Thus, neuroscientists find more opportunities and more research dollars. Progress in this field accelerates more rapidly than a field with only five funding outlets. This inequity persists despite a stunning track record in which brief social, motivational, and self-regulatory interventions have caused big improvements in students’ academic performance. If the prevailing norm were to think about these three domains, agencies like the National Science Foundation might offer more funding opportunities to cover these categories.

Third, when parents or teachers lack nuanced knowledge about children’s needs, student outcomes may suffer. Some groups of Eskimo have 50 words for snow, and this subtle vocabulary helps them describe important differences in their life experiences. To advocate effectively for students, educators and parents need a comparably rich vocabulary so that they can accurately understand and articulate children’s needs.

Greater semantic precision will endow teachers with increased ability to ensure that a specific intervention is the right one for a particular child. Parents who can distinguish their child’s academic mindset from the learning strategies s/he uses are better positioned to be supportive at home. Furthermore, a more educated public will exert upward pressure to help schools improve on a wider array of student outcomes.

So what is a better option for this not-so-new, badly-named baby? Three domains—social, motivational, and self-regulation—within this amorphous “non-cognitive” category cover an array of students’ most fundamental needs. Researchers in these areas are producing exceptionally promising interventions for students. Using these three labels would empower some parents to press schools that their students lack a social bond with the adults at the school; others that the use of rewards is undermining their child’s intrinsic motivation; and still others they need to help their children better manage their emotions.

This separation into three broad areas, like every solution, would be imperfect. However, it seems like a reasonable starting place for the discussion. As is the case with “non-cognitive,” there are real limitations to these names: they aren’t catchy, they overlap with each other, and they are less efficient than a single term.

Yet, with far greater precision than “non-cognitive,” they capture three key groups of the fundamental skills, dispositions, and traits that students need to prosper. Creating three terms where before only one existed before might also expand funding opportunities. These labels represent areas that parents and educators need to be able to distinguish. They also coincide with many of the most promising interventions in educational research.

I love irony as much as the next guy. I am bemused by the apparent lack of cognitive effort that we have collectively sunk into naming these “non-cognitive factors"—nobody would put such little thought into naming their own child. Yet, this, too, is a name that matters. So here is a start to the conversation. I hope others will chime in.

--Hunter Gehlbach

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.