The last time your school adopted a new math textbook or foreign language program, were the results remarkable? When you got new computers, or smart boards, or IPads, did student achievement begin to soar? The results were probably favorable, but not mind-boggling.
The point of the questions is not to disparage new technology or to discourage improvements in classroom materials. We need both. But we have grown to expect only baby steps in academic growth from such innovations. Is it possible we are looking for growth in the wrong places? The new word on the educational street is noncognitive factors in education. Here's four reasons why these factors are so noteworthy, and important:1) Noncognitive factors are the great untapped potential
The fastest, the most effective, and the deepest learning will not come from new ways to present material. It will come, and is coming, from the tangential (and too often untapped) powers of mindset, self-efficacy, the internalization of motivation, and executive functions like self-regulation. It was tapping into these powers that catapulted the academic stardom of Jaime Escalante’s students, of Stand and Deliver fame, and Sergio Juárez Correa’s classroom in a resource-challenged school beside a polluted garbage dump in a Mexican town.2) Noncognitive factors break down silos
There is little overlap in the knowledge content of material from a World History course and introductory algebra. But noncognitive skills are generally more transferrable from one discipline to another. Monitoring one’s learning, tracking which learning strategies work best, and sustaining attention are important in all subjects, so these factors have nearly universal applications. Noncognitive skills learned in just one course can benefit students in all subjects. Departmental silos, especially those that arise in high schools, can help one another.3) The “21st century learning” hype was a noncognitive focus
Most of what 21st century “educational competencies” called for—creativity, innovation, leadership, collaboration—are not cognitively based. Yes, there is some intellectual content to leadership and collaboration, but what the 21st century wants is not people who know everything, but people who adapt, who connect, who have skills—and the heart to use those skills for the common good. The kinds of skills that Robert Sternberg, Teresa Amabile, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and others are pointing out like the essence of creativity, innovation, and a number of other competencies, are not what books or online courses can teach.4) Noncognitive factors enhance moral growth
Most importantly, the reason we at CSEE know these are important is that many noncognitive factors that stimulate academic growth are precisely the factors that facilitate moral growth, too. Why? Because just as we find it easier to take in and process new knowledge when we feel competent, in control, and supported by people who care about us, so too do we feel more like being respectful of others and reaching out to those in need. We also often work for the benefit of the group when we’re not feeling inferior and when we are feeling supported and capable of making a difference. For Further Reading:
Dweck, C.S., et al. (2011) Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long term learning. Seattle: Paper prepared for the Gates Foundation.
Farrington, C.A. et al. (2012) Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of non-cognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.