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Four Reasons Why Noncognitive Factors Are Where It's At in 21st Century Education

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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.

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Posted By Amanda Leaman, Thursday, January 23, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

With the recent updating of CSEE’s Handbook for Developing and Sustaining Honor Systems, the issue of academic integrity is on our minds. Here are a few observations worth thinking about:

  • Students are less likely to cheat when they perceive that cheating does not happen regularly among their peers. 
  • Students cheat less (and develop integrity more) when they perceive that their teachers are caring.
  • Classrooms that are mastery-focused (deep learning of material), rather than performance-focused (focus on grades & awards), are likely to see less cheating.
  • The more students and faculty can be involved with the honor system (drafting or revising the code, answering surveys, giving input, etc.), the more they will buy into the honor system.

How can schools educate students to prevent infractions (intentional or accidental) of integrity?

  • Do workshops for incoming students on how to properly - and confidently - use resources, cite sources, etc. 
  • Have academic departments make students aware of their definition of, and expectations regarding, collaboration and tutoring.
  • Allow student-led Honor Education Committees to visit classrooms or advisory groups to discuss case studies about cheating, or to demystify how the honor system / council works.
  • Have celebratory “Honor Weeks” featuring guest speakers, open discussion forums, special readings or film viewings like Quiz Show, The Emperor’s Club, or School Ties. Some schools have planned a “Day Without Honor” where students reflect on what their community would be like if no one lived honorably (stolen laptops, copied homework, pop quizzes in every class).
  • Have students research the honor policy at the colleges they plan to apply to.

In addition to the nuts and bolts of honor systems (how to develop a code, how to configure and train a council, how to address a case), the second edition of the Handbook includes an updated appendix, with sample codes, documents, and ideas from independent schools across north america. 

Where this book excels is in its increased focus on the honor education program, and how to promote academic integrity.

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Fostering Grit

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Schools can take concrete steps to foster "performance virtues" like grit and perseverance. With both academic and moral benefits, such steps take little extra time and cost nothing.

There may be no busier field of research in education today (including character education) than that of how we “teach” kids to hang in there, to have the internal motivation and discipline to persevere to the end. Since 2011 at least six important research reviews or reports have been published on the subject of grit and or the role that mindsets play in the development of “tenacity” in students. From what these reports and reviews say, schools interested in fostering grit have four key steps to focus on:

  • Help students set their goals.
  • Create a school climate that fosters intrinsic motivation.
  • Teach kids about the "growth mindset"
  • Teach practical competence

1. Help students set their goals.

Grit guru Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (2007) define grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” Note: long term goals. The grit researchers are not talking about studying for final exams or working up grit for next week’s big game. Grit is having a goal and working toward accomplishing it. The goal has to be the student’s goal, thus an autonomously chosen goal. Schools that care about grit will help students discern their goals. The most compelling long term goal is, of course, what one feels is his or her “calling,” his or her purpose in life.

2. Create a school climate that fosters Intrinsic motivation

We do not want student to persevere because of carrots held over their heads. The perseverance of maintaining a life of integrity, the perseverance of lifelong learners, the perseverance of gritty human beings comes only from intrinsic motivation. That’s what the purple box in the graph alludes to: self-discipline, self-control, self-determined action. Having a long-term goal, having a purpose, helps foster intrinsic motivation. Schools can help the process by fostering autonomy, relationships of support, and competence as outlined in Breaking into the Heart of Character. Two areas of the third of these terms—competence—are what stand out most in endeavors to help students develop grit. Let’s look at those now.

3. Teach kids about the “growth mindset”

Mindset is a kind of cognitive competence. It is the mental confidence that “I can do this.” Schools can nurture cognitive competence in students by helping them understand that successful academic work, successful athletic performances, successful artistic accomplishments, and successful acts of courage are much more dependent on hard work, on sustained effort, than they are on native ability. Help kids grow to believe that “my abilities grow when I push through challenging situations,” and “I get stronger, I get smarter, with effort.” This is what is called a “growth mindset,” as opposed to the “fixed mindset” view that “I was born with certain abilities that will never change.”

4. Practical competence: executive function skills

The second part of confidence in “I can do this” comes not from a mindset that encourages a student to keep working, it comes because the student has developed skills: he or she knows how to plan, how to strategize, how to work around obstacles that could deter less gritty individuals. Thus, after our students have discerned their goals (img. 2, top box), the more we help accept a growth mindset (box 3)—and the more we can help them think through the hows, the what ifs, and the what nexts (box 4), the greater the benefit we will be to them.

All of the above happen more easily when box 2 is central, because without supportive relationships, without a certain amount of autonomy, and without confidence in one’s abilities, there is little hope for sustained performance.

- - - -

For those interested in following up on the most recent research, probably the most significant recent reports is a publication draft earlier this year by the US Department of Education, titled Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, with its focus on mindsets, strategy, and self-determined efforts as key factors in fostering perseverance. Other key reports are mentioned in the publication's text.

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Praise or Resilience: To Build or Destroy?

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Friday, November 22, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

By David Streight

Well-intentioned praise of intelligence or skill might do more harm than good.

Most educators have now learned from Carol Dweck’s best-seller Mindset that kids who believe in a “growth mindset” (that smartness comes more from work than from innate ability) end up being more successful than those who believe in a “fixed mindset” (that we’re born with smarts or personalities, and they don’t change). We also know that kids with a growth mindset are more willing to take academic risks and to test their skills than kids with a fixed mindset, and that the way we praise our children, at home or at school, tends to help them develop one of these mindsets. <br><br>What we now understand even better than when Dweck wrote her best-seller is the effect that praise of “fixed traits” has, long term, on two concepts at the forefront of 21st century education’s discussions: resistance and grit.<br><br>Dweck wrote Mindset at a time when lots of other research was being done, both by her team and by colleagues. Their findings on praise are giving shape to an importantly different view of 21st century character development. What’s newest about praise is that how we do it matters, not just for kids' willingness to try new things, but to stick with them and to bounce back when bad things happen. <br><br>Person praise vs process praise:<br><br><img style=" "="">

Let’s look especially at praising the student as a person versus praising the process or strategy. Praising the person, the skills or ability, is reflected in statements like: “You are a math whiz,” or “I think you’re maybe the best student I’ve ever had.” Praising the process refers to comments like “I loved the way you stuck with it, even when it got hard,” or “You were successful because you tried a new strategy when the first one wasn’t working. Great job!”

What about resilience?

What happens is that students who get praised as if traits were fixed (person praise), start to buy into what the praise says. After all, praise feels good; why not believe it? However, when these people later hit a wall, when an important obstacle stands in their way, the more they have “bought into” person praise, the greater amount of helplessness they demonstrate. The obstacle(s) has shaken their self-image and self-confidence and derailed either their will or their ability to explore options to get around the wall. It has damaged their resilience. The person praise helped them shape the idea that they are good only when they succeed; thus, if they fail, they’re bad. That’s not what the person giving the praise meant, of course, but that is what the research has indicated.

What about grit?

That’s the resilience connection. Related to it is the grit component: persistence, determination, “stick-to-itiveness.” Dweck’s work with Melissa Kamins, where they also review studies done by a number of others, has shown that kids who begin to buy into the view that their worth as a person is dependent on their success or failure in isolated incidents are harsher in their judgments of themselves, less happy generally, and less able to persist after setbacks than kids who don’t judge their general worth based on a single performance.

Click here to see the results of Kamins and Dweck's studies.

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Why 21st Century Schools Won't Grade Character

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Friday, October 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Besides the difficulties in having a full view of student lives, grading an individual on individual character traits will cause more harm than good in the students who most need support. Paul Tough’s recent best seller Why Children Succeed reopened the issue, for some schools, of grading students on character traits. Curiously, Tough’s accounts of two schools saw one of them, a KIPP School, deciding to grade students on character traits and the other, Riverdale, deciding not to do so. There are two compelling reasons why Riverdale made the right choice. Schools cannot, or should not, try to take the KIPP route by assigning grades for character.

Reason 1: The cannot

In search of what good character was and how it was fostered in schools, researchers Harry Hartshorne and Mark May looked at character education programs in the late 1920s. They did so through 10,000-plus school children in a study founded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Much to their dismay, they discovered that there were not “honest” or “dishonest” children, but rather children who tended to demonstrate honesty in some scenarios and not in others. Similar results were found throughout 20th century research. Character traits are found to be relatively stable in repeated situations (e.g., cheating or not on a test this week compared to a test six months from now), but unstable across different situations (e.g., lying to parents versus lying to friends).

Beyond the fact that character traits are not very reliable across situations, an attempt to grade character traits like honesty, citizenship, or responsibility assumes that the person grading is in a position to assess such traits reliably. Tough says the KIPP teachers found the process daunting. The literature on bullying itself is illustrative. Most schools have bullying/cyberbullying problems to one extent or another, and yet schools claim, rightly, that they do not know who the bullies are unless students report them. A certain percentage of bullying behavior is even perpetrated by those “kids you’d least suspect.” Most teachers are not in a position to do these kinds of assessments reliably, so their grades are based on observations in a very limited number of scenarios.

Reason 2: The should not

Greater than the difficulty that lies in the process of grading are the effects of character grades themselves. If a school’s goal is to improve character in all students, then grading individuals on character traits is a no-no. When students see a good grade—provided they feel the grade is warranted—the positive feedback may have slight beneficial effects. However, simple feedback like “good job” has little effect on motivation. What makes positive feedback effective is when the reasons for the “good job” comment are explained. This kind of “informational feedback” tends to motivate students to do more of it, but it does not generally encourage students to be “better.”

And what if a student gets a bad character grade?

We all know one story, maybe two, about a person who made a life-changing turn-around after negative criticism. However, a much more robust finding in the field of motivation is that negative evaluation undermines motivation. In other words, every student with a negative grade (that is, a grade he or she considers negative, regardless of whether the teacher thinks it’s negative) has a far better chance of losing motivation for that particular trait than of working to improve it. Sometimes the anger or resentment generated even causes the purpose of the grade to backfire. In other words, if we do give students unsatisfactory grades in character, we probably are working against our goals to foster character development. In still other words: character grades will have the most effect only if all students get good character grades. But there is no purpose in grading if the results will all be good.

Is there a way out?

The rationale people use in wanting to grade character is good; most people say “Character matters at our school, just as academics do. We grade both academics and character because we want to show that we care about both.” The only problem is that it just does not lead to productive practice. The flaw lies in the assumption that academic assessment and character assessment are done, and should be done, in the same way, and / or that our report cards are the best way to tell people what is important to us.

There are two paths out of the problem of character assessment, one at the individual level and one at the school level. If—again—the school’s goal is to increase motivation for positive character traits, greater results would come from a teacher writing a single sentence about each student. The most powerful such comment addresses the best specific instance the teacher recalls when the student in question demonstrated an important character trait and did so well. For example “I was so touched to see Susan stop in the middle of the game last week to go over and tend to a classmate who got hurt”; or “Paul made us proud this month when he showed the courage to put an end to what could have been an incident of bullying.” A sentence on “positive performance” is the kind of feedback that—from what four decades of research tell us—encourages more of the same.

The second path is at the school level. Though character should not be graded at the individual level, the school that cares will make regular attempts to assess its progress as an institution. Even a 20-item survey administered once or twice a year can tell much about whether the school is making progress in fostering character. For example, using a scale of 1 (I strongly disagree) to 5 (I strongly agree), a school can learn about itself by the number of students who respond with a 1 or 2 (versus a 4 or 5) to statements like “I feel liked by my fellow students” or “Students at our school respect one another’s opinions, even if they don’t agree with them.”

These are the kinds of assessments that more schools will be doing to help foster character development in the 21st century. Not individual character grades, but positive performance feedback that leads to better behavior and stronger schools, and measures to help the school understand what kind of culture it is fostering.

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