Can Non-cognitive Skills be Taught?

Can Non-cognitive Skills be Taught?

Can Non-cognitive Skills be Taught?

Non-cognitive factors such as grit, growth mindset, self-control, optimism, resiliency, adaptability, conscientiousness, self-efficacy, hope, and others are all showing to be crucial predictors of success in numerous life domains...Is it possible to directly teach and foster these factors?

As I recently wrote in a previous column titled Let’s Start Teaching the Skills that Matter Most, there is a growing awareness of the importance of what are being called non-cognitive skills to numerous successful life outcomes.  This is the set of skills which falls outside of the traditional definitions of intelligence and are not measured on standardized tests, yet research is making it very clear these skills matter tremendously in all of our lives. Whether it be in academics, the workplace, or any other venture dependent on exceptional human performance, non-cognitive factors such as grit, growth mindset, self-control, optimism, resiliency, adaptability, conscientiousness, self-efficacy, hope, and others are all showing to be crucial predictors of success in numerous life domains.  

In fact, during the time spent writing this article, two new studies were just published showing the importance of these skills.  In one study of our nation’s students, Damon Jones and his colleagues found that students’ non-cognitive skills measured in kindergarten could predict positive outcomes in adulthood related to education, employment, criminality, substance use, and mental health, even when controlling for students’ cognitive ability, home environment, and behavior as rated by the students’ mothers and teachers.  Likewise, in a study titled Marshmallows and Votes: Childhood Non-cognitive Skill Development and Adult Political Participation, Duke University’s John Holbein discovered that those students who had developed higher levels of non-cognitive skills were more likely to engage in political voting as adults.  In the article, Holbein noted, “Those who have developed the ability to persevere towards long term goals; to recognize the thoughts and emotions of others; and to regulate their own thoughts, emotions, and behavior are much more likely to participate than those who do not.” (Holbein, 2015, p. 34). Just as these studies have illustrated, other research in psychology, education, and economics all suggest non-cognitive skills are vitally important, and may, in fact, be even more important than cognitive ability to our long term success.

After presenting the growing body of evidence illustrating the importance of these factors, the next question invariably arises: Can you teach these skills?  Indeed, these skills are not new, and we all know that it helps to have motivation, self-discipline, and resiliency.  From ancient marvels like Plato to modern day success stories like Bill Gates, these skills have been crucial elements of success in the human endeavor throughout all of history.  Likewise, students have developed these non-cognitive skills within schools since the first schoolhouse doors opened.  Until now, though, students have only implicitly acquired these skills.  They have not, however, had the opportunity to specifically target and foster them through explicit instruction.  In other words, these non-cognitive skills have only been caught by students – not taught to them.  In completing daily assignments and turning in homework, for instance, students acquire self-discipline.  By participating in extracurricular activities such as sports, students also develop resiliency.  Through indirect means, then, we have been developing these non-cognitive skills.  Might it be possible, though, to make these non-cognitive skills part of the explicit curriculum where we specifically target and develop these vital characteristics in all kids?  Is it possible to directly teach and foster factors like grit, hope, resiliency, self-motivation, and other key skills for success?

There is mounting evidence the answer is yes.  Foremost, there is a growing body of research suggesting non-cognitive skills are not set in stone – they are not innate characteristics incapable of being altered but can instead be cultivated.  Based on his research in economics, Nobel Prize Laureate, James Heckman, argues non-cognitive skills are malleable and further suggests there are proven and effective ways to build these factors.  In examining the effects these skills have on labor market outcomes, he advocates the earlier we begin fostering these skills in students, the better.  Although it is likely best to begin building these skills at an early age, University of Chicago researcher Tim Kautz and his colleagues describe in a recent report titled Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success how non-cognitive skills are even more malleable than cognitive skills in adolescence.  

Beyond the world of academia, over three years ago in my role as a high school teacher, I began to see if I could actually develop these skills in a real high school classroom.  Using my background in both psychology and education and what I knew about non-cognitive skills, I developed a program in my school called Intrinsic Leadership Development, in which I attempted to specifically foster non-cognitive skills in students. Truth be told, when I first started the program, I had no idea if it would work – whether you could actually enhance students’ non-cognitive skills by teaching what these skills were and then doing activities to build them.  To measure whether the program was effective in building students’ non-cognitive skills, I utilized a pre/post-test design, where I provided students an instrument that measures various key non-cognitive skills at the start and conclusion of the program.  I also gave the same instrument to a group of students that did not participate in the program at the same times as those doing the program.  

At the end of the first year of the program, I was somewhat surprised to find that it worked - whereas the group of students that did not complete the program showed no changes in their non-cognitive scores, students in the Intrinsic Leadership Development program actually improved their non-cognitive scores.  Cautiously optimistic about these outcomes, I then tried it again with another group of students the following year – and had the same results.  Those in the program improved, whereas those not in the program showed no change.  In the third year, we once again obtained the same results.  Since starting the program three years ago, 97% of students in the program have reported that Intrinsic Leadership Development has been successful in helping them become a better student.  As a result of this early success, we have now experienced a 78% growth rate in student participation since first creating the program three years ago.  A year after going through the program, for instance, one student wrote me letter and said, “The Intrinsic Leadership Development program transformed my mindset.  I work harder than ever before.  I think outside the box and question everything.  I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I can better handle myself when the little voice in my head says I can’t do something. All the times I thought of giving up, I referred back to your program and was able to keep going.  I cannot thank you enough!”  Indeed, as an educator, it has been so rewarding to witness how the program has made a positive impact on my students’ lives.

In seeing how the program has helped my own students, it has now become my goal to assist many more students in developing these non-cognitive skills that research tells us are so important for lifetime success.  To help me do this, I have created the Intrinsic Institute - a research, coaching, and consulting firm which is working to unite the world’s leading thinkers in psychology and education to continue efforts to ensure that more students have the opportunity to develop this incredibly important set of skills.  To accomplish this, we provide coaching services to work one-on-one with students, curriculum for schools to foster non-cognitive skills, as well as training for educators to develop awareness of these key drivers of success.  It is our mission to ignite greatness by helping others recognize the importance of these non-cognitive skills and by equipping educators with the knowledge and skillsets to foster this overshadowed set of skills that predict success. 

 As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” As an educator and developer of human potential, I can only imagine what it would be like if we spent more time explicitly building the non-cognitive skills of our students.  By utilizing what we have learned from the latest research in psychology and education and then having the adequate time and resources needed to target these skills in real American classrooms, the benefits to our students could be extraordinary.  Beyond simply improving academic performance and test scores, I grow more and more confident that fostering these non-cognitive skills could have a tremendous long term effect on our students’ futures.  By helping our students become more self-motivated, disciplined, and resilient, we may just be able to unlock a whole new level of potential – and performance. 

© 2015, Intrinsic Institute, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


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. 

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