Non-cognitive Skills: Bad Name, Really Important

The research is clear, so called non-cognitive skills are key to success in college and work.

  • A 20-year study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that kindergarten students who are more inclined to exhibit “social competence” traits—such sharing, cooperating, or helping other kids—may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs.
  • A University of Chicago literature review funded by the Lumina and Raikes foundations said, “Students must develop sets of behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies that are crucial to academic performance in their classes.” Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners outlines categories of non-cognitive factors related to academic performance including behaviors, perseverance, mindsets, learning strategies, and social skills. It’s not just struggling students that benefit, “all students are more likely to demonstrate perseverance if the school or classroom context helps them develop positive mindsets and effective learning strategies.” The report outlines five key learning strategies, 1) study skills, 2) metacognitive strategies, 3) self-regulated learning, 4) time management, and 5) goal-setting.
  • Research done by Penn prof Angela Lee Duckworth determined that grit and self-control predict success in life. On the other coast Stanford prof Carol Dweck found that a “growth mindset”–the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—was critical to success compared to a belief that intelligence is fixed.
  • Bill Sedlacek partnered with the Gates Millennium Scholars Program (GMSP) to study what attributes were predictors of college degree attainment for students of color. He found eight noncognitive competencies that were higher predictors of success in college than either GPAs or SAT/ACT scores. The non-cognitive competencies include realistic self-appraisal, navigation skills, focus on long range goals, leadership, work experience.

Solving the name game. It’s clear that so-called “non-cognitive” or “soft skills” are really important but it’s also clear, according to new school guru Andy Calkins that “On every metric that counts – clarity, accuracy, purposefulness, and impact – both of these terms stink.” Specifically, they are meaningless, inaccurate, and they drive bad practice.

Calkins prefers the term agency because it encompasses the self-efficacy and -management capacities that standards-based reform overlooked, “Students particularly need agency to thrive in what is becoming a global, 21st-century, free-agent economy. It embodies ownership and deep engagement.”

Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, New Tech Networkagrees. The network of 160 project-based schools describe student learning goals in four categories: knowledge and thinking, written and oral communications, collaboration and agency. They share a agency rubric that assesses growth mindset  and ownership of learning.  

Habits of Success, according to Summit Public Schools (featured image), are the mindsets and behaviors that lead to success and satisfaction in life–managing your stress, persevering through a challenge, working well with others, setting goals and making plans. Summit teachers dedicate at least 200 hours during the school year to mentoring and coaching students in their Habits of Success through 1:1 mentor check-ins and more. They nurture a community of learners, where our students practice, model, and reflect on these skills and receive rich feedback from their teachers and peers to individually grow and thrive.

School solutions. The answer is not a new course in “agency.” There are five ways to integrate youth development strategies that produce powerful habits and a sense of agency.

  • Culture. The solution starts with a positive school culture. Students draw upon shared frames of reference to determine how to act in school. Bill Kurtz of DSST Public Schools said, “Character starts with the adults.”  That means modeling core value, providing regular feedback to students, and celebrating student success (see 10 Characteristics of a Great School Culture).  
  • Teacher practice. Turnaround for Children, a NYC nonprofit, advances a schoolwide approach to dealing with the traumatic stress of poverty. They help teachers become proficient in pro-social classroom management and in high-leverage instructional strategies.
  • Pedagogy.  Project-based learning is uniquely well suited to incorporating students choice and voice.  
  • Student supports. The Turnaround model also includes a system of positive discipline and individualized student support. A Student Support Social Worker is an active member of the student support team; they coach staff on student supports, intervene in difficult circumstances, and coordinates support with community-based mental health partner.
  • Advisory. Secondary students benefit from a sustained relationship with an advisor that checks in with them daily and monitors progress (see 15 elements of an advisory system). Expeditionary Learning schools start with a 30 minute advisory period where they practice and talk about the shared Habits of Heart and Mind: accountability, craftsmanship, wonder, mindfulness, and compassion.

For more see:

Update of a 10/31/2012 post

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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