Are “21st-Century Skills” Non-Cognitive?

toughCan non-cognitive skills like empathy and “grit” be measured by educators? Can they be taught?

Should such skills be measured? Should they be taught?

Whatever we may think, questions intended to assess social and emotional skills are apparently commonplace enough to appear on standardized tests, including the PISA exams. A 2015 article in Scientific American called for their inclusion in the college admissions process.

Yet a recent article at KQED’s “Mindshift” page echoes concerns in a New York Times piece about the move underway to formulate methods of measuring such attributes. Some of the examples of non-cognitive skills in the Times piece are dubious: “keeping bodies still,” and “focusing on the task.” Classroom management is undeniably important, but right away there seems to be slippage from “grit” and “joy” to sitting still and being quiet. And linking good behavior to more recess as one teacher does sounds like giving more medicine to those who show fewer symptoms.

So exactly what we are quantifying and privileging seems important to distinguish.

This distinction between “character” and “obedience” may be why, according to the Times article, MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth resigned from the board of a project for eight California school districts to test kids on their non-cognitive skills. She apparently had concerns about the the methods and goals of the study. “I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the same 23193622012_d0384d733f_btime, Duckworth is publishing a book on grit (entitled “Grit”) which she sees as distinct from self-control: eating your vegetables first shows self-control but not grit. Grit is about persistence, about setting and pursuing goals, even in the face of obstacles. (In Finland, the notion of “sisu,” which seems very close to grit, is central to national identity. But is it in the national curriculum? More on that in an upcoming post.)

Should we evaluate the skills we hope to impart as teachers? Yes, it makes sense. But there are so many: grit, growth mindsets, empathy, self-control, obedience, self-efficacy, social awareness, self-management, and so on.

Most teachers already measure some non-cognitive skills. If you are American, you may remember you elementary school report cards. Remember your marks for “safety” and “citizenship”? I always got low marks for these: was it because I was clumsy? Didn’t I sing “My Country, Tis of Thee” loud enough? I never knew because, as I remember, I never received any other feedback about these skills that my district (shout-out to Oakland!) found important enough to list on report cards.

Today we grade for “participation,” despite its slipperiness. How do we quantify it? Does an email about course content from a student count as participation? What about a chat in the hall? What about focused, active listening from an introverted student? I think participation should be broadly defined and differences between students should be taken into account, but do most teachers or schools (or colleges for that matter) have clearly articulated rubrics?

Duckworth offers a “grit scale” at her website which promises that you can “find out how gritty you are.” One look at it and we can see why many are concerned about the accuracy of such self-reporting. What would your reaction have been if you had been asked to take this quiz at 13 or 14?

Perhaps we could say that some educators measure what they value while others or value what they measure.

Mindshift puts it another way: “One argument in favor of measuring non-cognitive skills is tied to the funding that would support teaching those skills. The system tends to provide instructional dollars for things that get measured. But can this be done effectively?”

Maybe we cannot accurately and numerically measure the character of our students. Duckworth argues that “you cannot study what you cannot measure.” This is a compelling slogan but is it true? (And where does it leave theology?) Even if it isn’t true, does that necessarily mean we should abandon the pursuit of student grittiness and resilience?

Another thought: if our teaching practices are not aligned with the needs of our students, is it even fair to expect them to show elements of good character? I once waited in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Berkeley for four hours to pick up a “disabled person parking permit” for my mother. In retrospect, the emotions I felt that day were a lot like those I experienced on a daily basis in high school: boredom, fury, isolation. If you had tested me for a growth mindset that day, what would my score have told you?

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2 thoughts on “Are “21st-Century Skills” Non-Cognitive?

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  1. Hey Pat, We miss you and your red pants around here. It’s going to be 80 today! I have been grappling with this notion of resilience and grit. I find it troubling that so much of the literature out these days is about applying resilience and grit to academic perseverance and intellectual engagement versus broader engagement (physical / emotional / social action) and growth. What about service, what about working through interpersonal conflicts with peers or creative collaborators, what about maintaining a studio practice or keeping a gratitude journal? I’ve been involved with some debates around these here parts about whether we (as a school) have any role in our students lives beyond teaching them academics. Some argue that efforts around resilience should be scaled to our perceived locus of control (homework, academic performance, etc.) I’d like to understand how grit and resilience can partner with a more progressive view about how school can become a place where students plan, process and reflect upon everything happing outside the ivory tower so that their resilience greases the skids for more systemic change.


  2. Hi Nance! Thank you for writing. I share your concern that there is something reductive about much of the “grit” talk. I can also imagine some teachers saying, “Oh jeez, now I also have to teach these 150 kids to be gritty? What’s next?”

    It’s striking to me here in Finland that teachers do not seem involved in their students’ personal lives. Of course, young Finns are more independent but perhaps that’s because they aren’t treated alternately as helpless or criminal.

    Personally, I find the idea of teaching “the whole child” appealing, though at times I worry some parents then expect teachers to provide moral and ethical instruction that can only happen at home. I asked a couple friends here what they thought about teaching grit. Their response was that qualities including resilience are implicit in meaningful work over which students exercise control.


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