The “Soft,” “Non-Cognitive” Skills are Hard, Cognitive and Critical

by Rick on October 30, 2013

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.”

“The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.”

Kids playing ball.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.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Shirley October 31, 2013 at 7:35 am

I had a prof in my undergrad years who said he preferred “B” students to “A” students. Sometimes the A’s were exceptional but the B’s always worked for their B’s and it was the working hard part that counted. It demonstrated pluck.

And now that I’m old and wise, I see that the marks and so called “achievement” are not valuable, as you say, Rick…it’s the choices we make and our willingness to take on challenges that make us interesting people, that other people want to know and work with.

I think from now on, instead of wishing for success and happiness for my child, I will wish for her life to be “interesting”.

Leah October 31, 2013 at 8:33 am

I love this. I will send a copy to one of my granddaughters who is feeling pressure from her family to get all “As” like her sister did.

Thanks for sharing it, Rick!

Rick October 31, 2013 at 10:13 am

Yes. The meaning of the word “Interesting” is the same in both our best wishes for our children and the ancient Chinese Curse “May you live in interesting times.”
Pretty counter-intuitive.

DCollins November 1, 2013 at 4:53 am

So true and so perfectly articulated. I’ve been a preschool teacher of 4 and 5-year olds for more than 20 years, and I’m encouraged by what feels like a progressive movement in the education system to appreciate the importance and significance of the EQ. The buzz is out there, educators and parents are slowly waking up and realizing that problem-solving skills and that, as you state above:

“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.”

Here! Here! and Thank You.

Steve Carnevale November 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Well done Rick. One of your best blogs. I work with students at a college level and see this same requirement because these skills are often lacking. And companies are saying the same thing about college hires. Academics necessary but not sufficient for success. The so called soft skills are an absolute requirement!

Nicole Raguseo November 5, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Interesting Blog as I couldn’t agree more. When looking at student ability verse performance, it is always those students who have demonstrate the Seven Cs when learning, are those who outperform their ability.

Recently, we have adapted John Hattie’s Visible Learning principles, with students having ‘learning intentions’ or ‘I can statements’ which they worked on then proved their learning using various learning styles – not prescribed by the teachers. It clearly identified those students with the skills to persevere through challenges and those who were unwilling to risk-take.

An enjoyable read, thanks.

Marty November 6, 2013 at 5:40 am

This is great, Rick. The last sentence nails it, doesn’t it? I detect a potential dilemma here: if the stressing the importance of the life skills leads to an attempt to teach them, we will face the same problem we have with academics: some do great, some do not. As you say, we cannot teach to this test. Learning is a function of environment (as you say, “how” we teach, and that includes taking diversity into account, and granting autonomy (letting students have a lot of choices about topics, and time spent on what, etc.). As to diversity, here is a short video that brings teachers to tears:

Kathryn Yew November 7, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant. I get so excited reading posts such as these – and thank you for bringing attention to Ellen Galinsky, will be looking more closely into her work.

Megan Montoute April 23, 2014 at 7:37 am

Great read. Thanks for posting.

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