Let’s Start Teaching the Skills that Matter Most

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Synopsis

Dr. Brian Davidson (the Intrinsic Institute) advocates for placing greater focus on developing students’ non-cognitive skills.

"What knowledge is of most worth for students to learn?" questioned our professor.  “What is most necessary for students to know?” he probed.  These were the central questions posed to us in our doctoral class as we worked toward understanding our own philosophies of education while developing greater meaning of why we teach our students what we do.  When it came time for me to present my thoughts on what knowledge is most valuable for students, however, I took a different approach.  Rather than debate the merits of famous educational theorists like John Dewey or Ralph Tyler, I shared with our class a study led by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania that found that self-discipline was twice as good as IQ at predicting student academic performance.  After describing the groundbreaking results of the study, I then followed with a question to the class..."If this is the case, why are we not trying to explicitly build self-discipline and other factors like it in students?"  I continued to describe how our entire focus in education has been on developing a set of cognitive skills in students, with little to no focus on developing this other set of skills.  As these thoughts were shared, the class went silent, as an entire group of educators just shared in a moment of epiphany…
 
Since that time, a growing body of research continues to build suggesting there are a set of skills beyond IQ and cognitive ability that drive success.  More commonly referred to as non-cognitive skills, these are the various factors not easily measured on achievement and IQ tests.  Indeed, scholars in this field largely agree the name "non-cognitive skills" is a misnomer since the skills that encompass the term are not truly free of cognition.  Despite the challenge in name, though, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. These skills matter, and they matter a lot.  Researchers in fields of psychology, education, and behavioral economics are coming to an agreement that these skills are significant predictors of numerous successful life outcomes such as academic achievement, physical and mental health, and positive labor market outcomes.  
 
So what are these non-cognitive skills?  They are the intangibles - the "it" factors like grit, hope, growth mindset, self-control, resiliency, self-efficacy - that drive greatness, whether it be within students in the classroom, athletes on the field, or employees in an organization.  These are the skills teachers love to see in their students.  These are the skills coaches desire to find in their athletes.  And these are also the skills that employers seek to find within the individuals leading their organizations. In recognizing the power of these non-cognitive skills, major testing companies are now in the process of developing assessments that target these skills. Likewise, institutions of higher education are beginning to move beyond simply looking at ACT and SAT scores and are now placing greater attention on applicants' non-cognitive skills when determining which students to admit to their universities.  Most recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) announced that beginning in 2017, they will also begin measuring non-cognitive skills as part of their assessment of the nation’s students.  
 
With all of this in mind, I want to go back to the question I posed to my group of classmates - Why, then, are we not spending more time explicitly working to develop this extremely important group of skills in students?  Having been an educator for nearly a decade, I firmly believe the 3 R's - reading, writing, and arithmetic - are extremely important for student achievement.  However, I also realize there is so much more beyond those 3 R's that contribute to student success, both in the classroom and, more importantly, in life.  When we think back to the greatest teachers we had growing up as children, rarely do we think of them in such high regard because of the content knowledge they taught us.  Instead, these transformational educators made us feel different.  They helped us to become more motivated to accomplish our goals, more disciplined and gritty to stay committed to those goals we dreamed to achieve, and more resilient to bounce back when life knocked us down.  In other words, they cultivated in us higher levels of non-cognitive skills that contributed to our later success.  
 
What if the school day included a class to explicitly teach these skills?  What if, in addition to learning science, math, English, and social studies, we also had classes designed to explicitly help students become more self-motivated, perseverant, disciplined, and resilient?  What if students could learn the positive mindsets needed to prevent them from being debilitated by the fear of failure?  What if we had classes to help students learn how to develop the social capital needed to achieve their highest aspirations?  What if we spent more time developing the skills that society deems most important?  
 
If we truly want to ignite the greatness within our students, let's take a more holistic approach to developing students and begin placing more focus on building the other set of skills that are equally as important as what we’ve always been teaching - let's focus on building students' non-cognitive skills.  
 
About Dr. Brian Davidson
 
Brian Davidson is the founder and president of the Intrinsic Institute, a research, coaching, and consulting firm discovering and building the best in individuals and organizations. The Intrinsic Institute specializes in the measurement, training, and development of non-cognitive skills, the intangible “it” factors such as self-motivation, grit, and resiliency driving greatness. With a mission to ignite the greatness within, the Intrinsic Institute partners with individuals, educational institutions, and businesses to build the non-cognitive skills that drive exceptional human performance. 
 

Tags: brian davidson, grit, non-cognitive skills, perseverance, positive psychology, the intrinsic institute

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