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Two Cheers for ‘Non-Cognitive Skills’

By Robert Rothman — March 07, 2014 3 min read
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I don’t generally question Nobel Prize winners, but I have a small problem with the work of James J. Heckman. The University of Chicago economist won the Nobel in 2000 for his work on “the theory and methods for analyzing selective samples,” and he has done important work in education. His research showing the effectiveness--and cost-effectiveness--of early-childhood education has lent a major boost to the support for universal pre-kindergarten, for example.

Heckman has also found that factors seldom measured on IQ or achievement tests--characteristics like persistence and self-control--matter more than academic knowledge and skills in determining life outcomes. Heckman came upon this by studying students who had earned a General Educational Development certificate (GED). Although these students had the same academic abilities as those who graduated from high school, they ended up doing far worse in employment, health, and other aspects of life as adults. Why? Heckman reasoned that the high school graduates were much better able to make plans and stick to them and delay gratification--factors that served them well out of school.

There is a growing interest among educators in these characteristics. Paul Tough’s fine book, How Children Succeed, brought them to popular attention, and the idea gained further affirmation last year when Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has done pioneering research on “grit,” won a MacArthur award.

I certainly agree that these abilities are important, and the new-found attention to them is welcome. But where I question Professor Heckman--with all due respect to him and the Swedish Academy--is his term for them: “non-cognitive skills.” Heckman called them that to distinguish them from the abilities measured by tests. But I think that term misrepresents these abilities, and makes it more difficult to infuse them in education.

As Mike Rose notes, the abilities labeled “non-cognitive” often involve a considerable amount of brainpower. “Self-monitoring, for example,” he writes, “has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state, which is a demanding cognitive activity. Flexibility requires a weighing of options and decisionmaking.”

David Conley goes further and argues that abilities like persistence, goal-setting, and collaboration are in fact “higher form[s] of thinking.” He suggests that, in place of non-cognitive skills, these abilities should be called “metacognitive learning skills.” While I appreciate his point of view, I’m afraid that term is unlikely to catch on.

Another reason the cognitive-non-cognitive dichotomy is problematic is the fact that such abilities are best demonstrated in the service of intellectual endeavors. We want students to be persistent and gritty and to set goals while doing their work. These abilities are not ends in themselves, but make it possible for students to perform higher levels of thinking and problem-solving.

Some schools that pursue deeper learning for their students embed opportunities for persistence and the like in their academic programs. For example, Edvisions schools, a network of schools based in Minnesota, requires all students to complete a senior project in order to graduate. These projects are highly motivating to students, and require students to develop and complete long-range plans, to persist and make course corrections when things get tough, and to consistently assess progress. The state of Rhode Island has a similar graduation requirement (students can submit a portfolio as well).

I saw examples of Rhode Island senior projects when I served as a judge for student presentations for three years. The student work was remarkable, and showed me what students can come up with when they have opportunities to develop and demonstrate the abilities that are not measured on standardized tests.

So that’s why I give the term two cheers. I am all for the concept and believe schools need to find ways to develop these abilities in students. But let’s think of another term for them.

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