The Critical Need for a National Conversation about Noncognitive Skills in #Education

What really sets people up for well-being in life as well as the ability to make significant contributions to their communities, nation and world? Is it a nation of people with high GPAs, high test scores, or high performance on other standardized tests aligned to the Common Core or some other set of academic standards? Content and academic disciplines are important, but our national conversation about education is suffering from an over-emphasis upon standardized tests and an under-emphasis upon what a growing body of literature indicates has a massive impact on the lives and opportunities for people. I’m talking about noncognitive skills. Books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed shows gives us a glimpse into the power and importance of things like grit, curiosity and character; but few schools make this what I call their unavoidable, undeniable, school-shaping concept. Imagine what would happen if schools homed in on nurturing grit, curiosity and character as much or more than they are focused upon aligning everything to the Common Core or striving to produce the highest standardized test scores. In this age of data and measurement, how many are even analyzing the data about how students are faring in these noncognitive areas? If we are going to be a school system focused on testing, why not at least make noncognitive skills the primary measures?

Having a conversation with a colleague recently, I found myself thinking out loud about the role of assessment and grading in education. Many current grading practices are about rating and categorizing people. Even as I think about my own experiences in high school, I remember the special care administrators took with the straight “A” students and those who had exemplary scores on their ACT or SAT. Those were identified as the exceptional students, the ones destined for great things. There is no question that high test scores and marks open doors to certain colleges that would otherwise be a long shot for students. We also see that those test scores and GPA are an indicator of one’s likelihood to find academic success in college. What about after college? That is where the research becomes more difficult. Earning a college degree increases the likelihood of certain opportunities after college, so having a greater likelihood of success in college naturally leads to greater opportunities after college, as indicated by a 2014 study. On the flip side, there were all the 2013 headlines about a Google HR executive claiming that test scores and GPA were not especially helpful in finding the great talent they seek. In addition, we have a growing collecction of studies showing the importance of non-cognitive skills in the workplace, not to mention the rest of one’s life.

What if we looked at the GPA and standardized test scores separately? What insights might we glean? Some studies suggest that we might be wise not to do so, as GPA tends to be a stronger predictor of college success than test scores. While not certain, this may well indicate that it is not the aptitude of the person as much as many non-cognitive traits that make a difference. Grit, self-discipline, creative problem-solving, interpersonal skills; these make a huge difference in the academic success of a person. If you can’t be disciplined enough to schedule time for in-depth study and preparation, your chances of academic success plummet, and since most of school is not “rocket science”, it is less about your raw intelligence and more about discipline, hard work, and the emotional intelligence necessary to recover from temporary setbacks, to work hard, and to seek and obtain the help you need to be successful. Existing academic standardized tests don’t measure such things.

This is coming from someone who is an advocate of doing away with grades as well as more self-directed learning environments, but it is hard to deny that there are still plenty of people who find success in life having gone through traditional schools with letter grades, unit tests, desks lined up in straight rows, and a teacher lecturing at them from the front of the room? Yet, I contend that it would be a mistake to assume that this validates all those methods directly. The reality is that these schools are set up where students need to meet deadlines, learn to juggle multiple projects/subjects/assignments at once, schedule time to study and prepare for “assignments”, negotiate with leadership, learn from sometimes less than interesting or helpful lectures or lessons, stick to a routine, and do things that you don’t want or like to do.

My concern is that many such school contexts, while rewarding people who develop these skills (largely on their own or because of nurturing outside of school or in extracurricular activities), it is also a model that lets many students fall between the cracks, a model that deflates and demoralizes some while affirming and empowering others. For example, I spoke with a colleague yesterday who teaches graduate students, and she noted a rise of schools returning to old educational practices that raise test scores (the growing priority in many public schools) while decreasing a broader range of skills and proficiencies that are not measured on such tests. Similarly, how many students go through school with the persistently reinforced implicit message that they are not smart, bad at __________, a bad learner, and not cut out for grand accomplishments? How many students have been deterred from reaching their highest potential by the current model?

As an alternative, what if learning organizations took as much interest in nurturing non-cognitive abilities like grit, leadership, managing emotions, building strong interpersonal relationships, and the like? The US Department of Education’s mission statement is rooted in the concept of “global competitiveness.” Who is more competitive, a nation of people who meet the Common Core standards for math and language arts or the a nation of gritty,  self-regulated, emotionally and socially confident and competent people who boldly strive to accomplish great things in all aspects of life? Which will best position us to tackle many of our greatest challenges in our individual life and society as a whole? I’m not suggesting that math and language arts lack importance or that this needs to be an either/or debate. I do suggest, however, that a nation of learning organizations focused on nurturing these non-cognitive skills will yield amazing results in the individual lives of people, families, communities and beyond.

Some schools and educators might argue that they do indeed teach non-cognitive skills. I don’t challenge that claim. At the same time, it is hard to deny that test scores, standards, and GPA have center stage in contemporary American education. I’m fine with them playing a supporting role in this national drama, but I’d much rather see non-cognitive skills as the lead character. Of course, this isn’t new. Places like the KIPP schools are already deeply engaged in such an effort, even to the point of exploring a counterpart to the GPA known as the CPA (Character Point Average).


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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “The Critical Need for a National Conversation about Noncognitive Skills in #Education”

  1. David Elliott

    Although addressing a different audience, David Brook’s new book “The Road to Character” comes at this important issue. He has placed the issue in the public square. Schools are good places for this conversation to continue.

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