Non-Cognitive Skills Are Important. Now What?

The combination of Paul Tough’s new book and KIPP’s savvy PR team have once again highlighted the fact that non-cognitive skills (or character, or emotional intelligence, or whatever you want to call them) are extremely important. And they are. That they’re finally receiving the minimum level of attention needed to have a chance of inducing change in our youth development institutions (i.e. school) is great news. The problem is that there’s a tendency for people to pat themselves on the back for raising awareness when the toughest tasks still remain. How can our education system, in practice, implement the teaching of non-cognitive skills?

At first glance, it’s an insurmountable challenge. There’s no extra instructional time for special lessons that don’t involve STEM or literacy. Idle resources that could be used to educate teachers are non-existent. Stand-alone interventions, even those with a mountain of scientific evidence behind them, are rarely implemented on a large scale. Sure, KIPP’s new focus on character has a promising start, but they’re doing it with a comically extreme emphasis that requires the dedication of every staff member at every opportunity. Creating that type of school-wide culture is utterly unscalable — there’s no way a majority of schools in America can pull it off.

My concern is that the new emphasis on “character” will go the way of “mindsets,” the most recent next-great-thing. For those who don’t remember, over 25 years of research has led to the conclusion that believing intelligence is malleable rather than fixed (a “growth” mindset) can have significant positive effects, even when interventions designed to instill this belief are brief.  When you believe you’re capable of getting smarter, failure is less painful because it’s a snapshot of your ability, not a permanent verdict. The focus on what psychologists call “theories of intelligence” peaked in 2006 when Carol Dweck published “Mindsets,” an overview of research and recommendations aimed at the non-scientific community (e.g. parents and educators.)

Now it’s six years later and the question is whether anything has changed. Yes, there are countless teachers and parents who took the lessons to heart and take every opportunity to emphasize that people aren’t born smart or stupid. But our education system as a whole still lacks an institutional focus in these areas. Meanwhile, Dweck and some of her former students have put their efforts behind a product called Brainology — a piece of software designed to teach children about the malleability of intelligence. Unfortunately, the price ($6,000 for a school, or $10-$90 for a child) seems likely to prevent it from having a transformational impact. (It would be wise for the government to purchase one less tank and instead buy Brainology for every child in America, but that’s a subject for another post.)

The lesson of mindsets is that if a new innovation isn’t implanted inside the building blocks of the school day, our excitement about it will soon wane and be forgotten. What’s needed is change without change — ways of teaching non-cognitive skills that don’t disrupt the current structure of the classroom or school day.

The good news is that there does appear to be a workable and scalable way to make this happen. Nearly every subject dedicates time to learning about individuals — it doesn’t matter if it’s math (Pythagoras), Science (Marie Curie), History (Truman), or English (Atticus Finch) — and learning about people is a great opportunity to highlight and teach the use of non-cognitive skills.

Researchers have already found evidence that this can be effective. One recent study examined what happend when students were presented with three variations of the same physics lesson. The first lesson taught students about scientists’ struggles to initially make their discoveries. The second lesson focused on the scientists’ lifetime achievements. The third lesson had no additional information beyond the physics content knowledge presented in all three lessons. When students were evaluated after the lessons, those who learned about the scientists’ struggles (character! growth!) performed better on nearly every measure:

 We found that the achievement-oriented background information had negative effects on students’ perceptions of scientists, producing no effects on students’ interest in physics lessons, recall of science concepts, or their solving of both textbook-based and complex problems. In contrast, the struggle-oriented background information helped students create perceptions of scientists as hardworking individuals who struggled to make scientific progress. In addition, it also increased students’ interest in science, increased their delayed recall of the key science concepts, and improved their abilities to solve complex problems.

A simple emphasis on failure and struggle transformed the students’ perceptions of science. The great teachers are able to do this, but for those who can’t we need to help out by building these lessons into the curriculum. With the amount free and open material increasing every day this shouldn’t be too difficult. Simply take a standard physics textbook and add a few sentences about Newton’s struggles or a positive/negative way he dealt with Leibniz’s concurrent discovery of calculus. Or take a generic history lesson about the American revolution and add five minutes of discussion about not fearing failure.

There’s a story often taught to Hebrew school students about the ancient Rabbi Akiva learning the Hebrew alphabet as a 40-year-old in a kindergarten classroom. I’m confident the story’s popularity is a result of it being “naturally selected” due to the way it imparts knowledge while imparting knowledge. In the midst of teaching the life history of an important figure it manages to stealthily convey the idea that anybody at any age possesses the ability to become almost anything (i.e. intelligence is malleable). It’s great that non-cognitive skills are being accepted as an important piece of our education system, but to ensure they become a part of it we must figure out ways to teach lessons, without disrupting lessons.


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How Generalizations About Learning Hurt Student Motivation

Recent research on implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. whether you believe intelligence is fixed or malleable) has paved the way for some of the most promising low-cost high-reward educational interventions. For example, a series of short lessons about the brain’s potential to grow like a muscle can have significant and long-lasting effects on student achievement. Even something as simple as responding to good work with “you worked so hard” rather than “you’re so smart” can make a difference.

The problem, as a new study shows, is that there are countless inputs that go into forming a child’s beliefs about intelligence. A pair of experiments led by Andrei Cimpian of the University of Illinois discovered that simply linking success in something to a social group — for example, telling children that “girls are good at soccer” — can lower performance by instilling the mindset that intelligence is fixed.

We hypothesized that the mere act of linking success at an unfamiliar, challenging activity to a social group gives rise to entity beliefs that are so powerful as to interfere with children’s ability to perform the activity. Two experiments showed that, as predicted, the performance of 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 192) was impaired by exposure to information that associated success in the task at hand with membership in a certain social group (e.g., “boys are good at this game”), regardless of whether the children themselves belonged to that group.

The bad news is that blanket statements about groups is rampant is society. Even serious education policy analysis often contains some form of the sentence “underprivileged kids from a poor socio-economic background can’t/are bad at/have no chance to….”. Kids hear these things, whether it be from other kids, teachers, parents, or strangers, and they do have an effect.

I also think there’s a more abstract lesson about the diminishing returns modern humans are experiencing when it comes to broad “un-nuanced” generalizations. The reason people categorize things is because it’s often a useful heuristic for making sense of the world. But as our cognitive abilities have become more advanced the number of categorizations that benefit society (e.g. all berries with red spots are poisonous) is decreasing while the number of categorizations that can cause great harm to society (e.g. all tea party supporters are violent racists) seems to be increasing.

Over the next 100 years a key piece of human cognitive development will be finding ways to learn and teach how to instinctively understand the variation and flexibility within categorizations, and how to quickly break them into less biased and more useful increments. For example, when an 8-year-old girl hears “girls are bad at math,” it would be great if she had the psychological skills necessary to instantly interpret it as “from a statistical standpoint, girls tend to get lower scores on math tests, but this in no way means that working hard will not allow me to be better at math.”
Cimpian, A., Mu, Y., & Erickson, L. (2012). Who Is Good at This Game? Linking an Activity to a Social Category Undermines Children’s Achievement Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429803