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Giving Cognition a Bad Name
February 22, 2013
This is a companion piece to “Saving the Poor with Science.” An abbreviated version of it was published in Education Week on January 16, 2013.
Giving Cognition a Bad Name
Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or living with someone. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito erqo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.
As if that were not enough, there is now emerging on a number of fronts – nicely summarized in Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed – a belief that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum – or on academic intervention programs for the poor – we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character or personality like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility. As much or more than the cognitive, the argument goes, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life.
It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, and I must admit a guilty pleasure in watching someone as smart as Nobel Laureate James Heckman (one of the advocates for character education) go after our current Department of Education’s reductive academic policies.
The importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility are indisputable, but what concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores – like the desired qualities of character – is, de facto, non-cognitive. We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.
This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/non-cognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially the education of the children of the poor.
To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “non-cognitive” misrepresents them – particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state – a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision-making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it, especially if you want to scale up your efforts?
Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic pre-school programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects – were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation.
A very different example comes from a study I just completed observing community college occupational programs as varied as fashion and diesel technology. As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing and help others do it. You could be by inclination the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, you’re tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.
Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/ non-cognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies – think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past fifty years attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful.
Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s book where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him.
By all means, let us take a hard look at our national obsession with tests and scores and grades, and let us think more generously about what kinds of people we want our schools to develop. Part of such reconsideration would include a reclaiming of the full meaning of cognition, a meaning that is robust and vitally intellectual, intimately connected to character and social development, and directed toward the creation of a better world.
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