Student Well-Being

Is the Teaching of Noncognitive Skills Just a Distraction?

By Anthony Rebora — January 13, 2015 2 min read
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The New York Times ran an interesting column this weekend titled “Should Schools Teach Personality?” In it, writer Anna North highlights a new study finding that students’ levels of conscientiousness and curiosity are better predictors of academic success than raw intelligence.

According to the lead researcher in the study, Australian psychology professor Arthur E. Poropat, both conscientiousness and curiosity (or “openness,” to use the more scientific term) can be developed in students—triggering the question of whether schools should be doing more to teach such noncognitive traits.

As North points out, many schools already have programs in place to teach “grit” or perseverence, the now-vaunted character trait whose role in academic achievement has been highlighted by pyschology professor (and former teacher) Angela Duckworth and further explored by author Paul Tough. On the practical rationale behind such instructional approaches, North quotes Mandy Benedix, a Texas middle school educator who teaches a class on grit:

We know that these noncognitive traits can be taught. We also know that it is necessary for success. You look at anybody who has had long-term sustainable success, and every one of them exhibited at some point this grit, this tenacity to keep going."

Benedix adds that she has seen examples of students who’ve taken her course becoming more willing to take on difficult challenges.

Others, however, have argued that the emphasis on developing students’ noncognitive abilities merely presents a distraction from serious structural issues in schools. For this perspective, North quotes progressive education writer Alfie Kohn:

'Social psychologists for decades have identified a tendency to overestimate how important personality characteristics, motivation, individual values, and the like tend to be relative to the importance of the structural characteristics of a situation,' he said. 'We tend to think people just need to try harder, or have a better attitude,' but 'this tends to miss the boat. What really matters is various aspects of the system itself.'

Which, however, doesn’t offer much help to classroom educators who don’t have a great degree of control over the “structural characteristics” of schools or social systems and who want to do whatever they can to prepare students for their futures.

In a pointed comment on North’s article, meanwhile, education writer and consultant Grant Wiggins takes issue with the title of the piece, saying that educators should be wary of teaching “personality":

The aim is not to teach personality—arguably a fixed idiosyncratic mix of genes and upbringing—but to teach moral and prudential habits, which certainly can be improved through deft 'teaching.'

That kind of teaching isn’t easy, Wiggins continues. To take shape in students, he says, the moral habits sought “must be developed of necessity in well-designed environments that require them.” They must “be woven into how learning is organized and how decisions are made. Alas, [they] seldom [are].”

In a separate blog post, Larry Ferlazzo worries that North’s article might be taken to imply that educators should start focusing on teaching conscientiousness and curiosity in the place of grit and self-control:

[North] seems to think that the new study suggests that instead of teaching about grit and self-control, hallmarks of SEL [social-emotional learning], we should teach "conscientiousness" and curiosity. I really don't see any difference between conscientiousness and grit/self-control, and I think it's great that curiosity is being found to be a new addition to SEL, so I don't understand about why it's such a big deal. It sort of seems to me like a bunch of academics arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

But I don’t think North is actually trying to pit various character traits against one another. Rather, she seems to be pointing out that the connections between noncognitive traits and academic success may be richer and more complex than is commonly thought.

Image: Character education display, via VariQuest Visual Learning Tools, Flickr Commons.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.