Cognition is the knowledge we obtain when our brain processes our environment. Cognitive skills are defined as the brain-based skills we need to function in the world. Skills like language and reading. And the ability to think, focus, remember, and make decisions. Grade school's specialty is to develop student's cognitive skills. But should more time be spent developing non-cognitive skills?
Non-cognitive skills are difficult to identify because they are difficult to measure and quantify. They are believed to underpin our success at school, work, or life in general. The meaning of success is objective (for example financial vs. emotional success). However you measure success, research is showing that non-cognitive skills will get you on the road to success. Examples of non-cognitive skills includes: creativity, critical thinking, motivation, perseverance, self-control, work ethic, resilience, and coping.
In sports, non-cognitive skills are often referred to as the "intangibles" (aka intangible skills). So in basketball, your cognitive skills are your ability to dribble the ball, shoot, and make passes. The intangibles are how well you perform under pressure, how you react to taunting from opposing players, and your motivation to improve. Often times it's the intangibles that separate a good player, from a great player.
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Notice that all of these skills are non-cognitive. If non-cognitive skills are the keys to success in school/sports/life, why do K-12 schools focus on cognitive skills?
One reason is that cognitive skills are measurable. Schools need to measure students in order to evaluate student and teacher performance. We can standardize measuring how well Sally can read. But standardizing how relentless or creative she is is much more difficult.
This leads to some big questions. Should K-12 curriculums be 50% cognitive and 50% non-cognitive skills based? How do schools measure the effectiveness of teaching non-cognitive skills? Is school the right environment for teaching non-cognitive skills? Can these skills be taught? How do you teach a child resilience?
Non-cognitive skills cannot be taught the same way cognitive skills are taught. I can give you a workbook that will teach you how to add and subtract fractions. I can't give you a workbook to teach you resilience. Non-cognitive skills need to be instilled. And that requires a different approach to lecture/workbook based instruction.
High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego California, approaches the challenge through the statement: "it's your decision". Empowering kids to think for themselves and make decisions is a way for them to develop non-cognitive skills at school. Kids need an environment where they can dream, build, question, fail, and explore. It gives the dual benefit of making school more interesting, and conducive to honing non-cognitive skills.
Standardizing a non-cognitive skill based curriculum would be a big blocker to getting mass adoption. Knowing which skills to teach would also be a challenge. We develop non-cognitive skills in different ways and from various sources. Whether from hobbies, mentors, parents, friends, values, school, or other sources, we amass our skills as a byproduct of our environment.
These skills are valued highly across the world. The jobs of the future will depend on workers that have these skills. And therefore we may be moving toward a future where learning non-cognitive skills becomes a large component of a child's environment.