The soft, non-cognitive curriculum is neither soft, nor non-cognitive, nor a curriculum.
One afternoon I met a fifth grade teacher grading papers and writing report cards in a café. When I greeted him he didn’t say “Hi,” but waving Maya’s report card in the air said: “Now this is what a model student looks like.”
“What’s so great?” I asked.
“Maya always loves a challenge.”
“What about all the other items on the report card?”
“If you take on challenges, everything else falls into place. Her academic strengths and weaknesses don’t really matter that much.”
Research continues to show what this teacher and other practitioners have known for many decades; i.e. that measures of academic achievement are not the predictors of success. Rather the predictors of success are a set of skills that many today are calling (improperly) “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills.”
In Mind in the Making, for instance, Ellen Galinsky presents “The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” Looking at the Table of Contents one finds one can’t argue. If we were hiring—for whatever occupation—we would want someone who could (1) focus and control themselves, (2) take other perspectives, (3) make connections, (4) communicate, (5) think critically, (6) take on challenges, and (7) love learning. Whether you are playing four square on the playground or working with a partner in the science lab, whether you are a salesperson or the marketing director of a corporation, an administrator or an administrative assistant, a board member or a parent volunteer, these skills are essential. If you were looking for partners for a project, you would want them to have these abilities.
Indeed, “everything else falls into place” for those who love a challenge because the ability to take on challenges is centered in the decision-making center of the brain along with the other six abilities. Each of these seven skillsets is a manifestation of a well-developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes choices, sets goals, designs solutions, makes hypotheses, tests them, and makes judgments about truth, beauty and justice.
In a third grade class in Johns Hill School most of the children are at their desks writing, but one group of students who finished their work are sitting on the floor at the back of the room playing a game with 20 white dice each of which has a different word on each of its six faces. Bailey has just made a sentence: “the cute wife gave a soft laugh.” But two of the other players dispute it as a valid sentence. Janice insists that “soft laugh” doesn’t quite work. Henry, the scorekeeper tends to think Janice has a point and suggests that Bailey could make it work if it were “the soft wife gave a cute laugh.” All four immediately agree and Henry puts a seven in Bailey’s column on the scorecard.
Henry rolls the dice and starts a new sentence. Janice says, “The subject’s fine, but what’s the predicate?” All four of them suggest possibilities to Henry who eventually comes up with “I like to hear your face laugh” before the sand finishes running through the three minute timer.
The game progresses gracefully through constant conflict:
“You can’t flip the dice to other sides to find other words.”
“I’ll give you 3 for the first three words, because that’s a sentence, but the rest doesn’t make sense.”
“Bailey’s in the lead. 7 + 10 = 17.”
“You don’t know that; we haven’t totaled everything yet.”
The ability of these children to collaborate is remarkable. Rarely have I seen a group of adults disagree as often as these four 8-year-olds in such a friendly, mutually supportive way. Each child is a decision-maker in competition with three other decision-makers, and nobody gets mad.
Taking on challenges, controlling yourself, changing perspective, connecting, communicating, thinking critically, and creative learning—these Seven C’s are at least as important as the 3 R’s, and there’s nothing “soft” or “non-cognitive” about them. It’s time to call them The Hard Curriculum. The state tests evaluate schools based on the written curriculum, but life and the students evaluate schools on their ability to deliver The Hard Curriculum because the latter is what makes the difference between success and failure in life.
Whether the written curriculum uses the common core standards of the current educational reform effort or the No-Child-Left-Behind standards of the last one doesn’t really matter much, because mastering The Hard Curriculum does not depend on what is taught, but how it is taught. Moreover, you can’t teach to this test because the pre-frontal cortex builds its capacity while engaged in self-directed, internally motivated problem-solving and decision-making.