Non-cognitive Skills: Bad Name, Really Important

Learning, Learning Innovations

Two recent reports point to the importance of so called non-cognitive skills to success in college and work. A University of Chicago lit 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.”

The report found that grades are a better indicator of future success than test scores because they are a proxy for a range of positive academic behaviors “including study skills, attendance, work habits, time management, help-seeking behaviors, metacognitive strategies, and social and academic problem-solving skills that allow students to successfully manage new environments and meet new academic and social demands.”

Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners outlines “five general categories of non-cognitive factors related to academic performance: 1) academic behaviors, 2) academic perseverance, 3) academic mindsets, 4) learning strategies, and 5) 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.”

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed , said, ” We don’t teach the most important skills,” a list that includes “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.” We don’t teach them and we don’t know what to call these “soft skills.” David Conley, EPIC, thinks the non-cognitive skills could more accurately be called “meta-cognitive learning skills.”

The solution starts with a positive school culture. “Within schools and classrooms, students draw upon frames of reference shared with social groups that are important to them to determine how to act and “who to be” in school, which has implications for how they interpret the world of school and for their subsequent academic behavior.”

For all the talk about learning to learn, it doesn’t make the core curriculum in most schools. The report outlines five key learning strategies: 1) study skills, 2) metacognitive strategies, 3) self-regulated learning, 4) time management, and 5) goal-setting.

The Department of Education’s Race to the Top District (RTTD) grants were due today (until the storm delay). The application recognizes the importance of leveled instruction in literacy and numeracy but it takes comprehensive view of personalization with attention paid to academic mindsets and strong support services.

Turnaround advice. Among all the reports issued providing advice on RTTD grants, RTTD Action Brief from Turnaround for Children may have been the most interesting. This opening paragraph is a pretty good summary of what Dr. Pamela Cantor, Turnaround CEO, has learned about working with kids living in chaotic situations The manifestations of poverty – families without homes or jobs, communities plagued by crime and violence, and more – often assault or interrupt an integrated child development process in significant ways. The outward signs of this disruption take varied but predictable forms, from distraction to dysfunction, and this disrupted development inevitably interferes with children’s ability to fully do the work of childhood, including progressing in school successfully.

Like kids in war torn countries, Dr. Cantor observed “disrupted development” in many urban children. It order to mitigate these effects, we believe that that a successful solution, one that personalizes learning for all children must squarely address the profound effects of poverty on children’s development and embrace a new 21st century school model, one that increases the competency, skill and motivation of all adults to address, in their daily practice, the cognitive, social and emotional development of children. In this, we are speaking of every adult, every classroom. Turnaround recommends that three Foundational Conditions be established to insure Personalization of Learning takes hold.

  • Teacher Practice: Teachers must become proficient in pro-social classroom management and in high-leverage instructional strategies in order to proactively develop those non-cognitive attributes (motivation, goal direction, self efficacy) that students need to truly become college and career ready.
  • Student Support: Schools must establish a multi-tiered high-capacity, student support system that includes school-wide positive discipline, social and emotional learning and classroom-level and individualized student supports
  • Leadership and Management: A multidisciplinary school leadership team should develop and monitor a school improvement plan, align resources to this plan, monitor continuous improvement toward high standards.

For someone like me that spends a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of blended models, Turnaround’s RTTD Action Brief is not specific in that regard, but it is specific about the kinds of cooperative learning, formative assessments for learning, and school wide positive behavior management plans that should be in place to successfully personalize learning and meet the deeper learning goals behind the achievement of the Common Core State Standards. Like “non-cognitive skills,” Dr. Cantor finds the subset labeled “Social Emotional Learning” (SEL) a bit inadequate but given its wide acceptance uses it in the report and suggests, “SEL instruction involves teaching, modeling, coaching and providing students with opportunities to develop, apply and generalize skills and knowledge.”

By ensuring that 100 percent of teachers in a school become proficient in the high-leverage instructional strategies and Positive Classroom Management described in the RTTD Action Brief, the bar is raised across the school, enabling teachers and students to actively problem solve, pursue deeper learning and truly have the opportunity to achieve at college and career standards.

The Turnaround model includes a Student Support Social Worker, the individual who leads the development and coordination of the school’s high-capacity student support system, moving beyond a singular focus on mandated casework. This role helps to lead the student support team, coordinates support with a community-based mental health partner, coaches staff on student supports, and is able to intervene in difficult circumstances. In all, this role maximizes the development of internal capacity within the school.

As noted in a companion paper by AIR , measures must include leading indicators, outcomes data, measures of the conditions for learning, and measures to assess the quality of implementation along with a continuous improvement strategy for the Foundational Conditions.

This blog first appeared on EdWeek.