Mike Rose’s Blog: Some Thoughts on Character Education, Non-Cognitive Skills, Grit, and the Formation of Public Discourse about Education
Beginning several decades ago with the discussion of the value of “soft job skills” (punctuality, self-monitoring), we seem to be increasingly concerned with what have come to be called “non-cognitive” skills in the workplace, the schoolhouse, and in life itself. Valuing a wider range of human abilities and characteristics is a good thing, but there are some significant conceptual problems in the ease with which we distinguish “hard” from “soft” or “cognitive” from “non-cognitive” skills, and these problems affect public policy and public discourse about education.
Over the years, I’ve tried to unpack some of these problems, and since they keep reappearing in new guise and new contexts, I wanted to put together some of my reflections in one place, edited to avoid too much repetition. See if you find this compilation useful.
“Thinking Harder About Soft Skills”
Before we had grit, we had soft skills. From Department of Labor reports to testimonies from business groups, experts for several decades have been underscoring the importance of qualities such as punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others. Though employers certainly mention hard or cognitive skills – from literacy and numeracy to occupation-specific knowledge – soft skills continue to be much discussed and desired as crucial work skills for our time.
The emphasis on soft skills makes sense, of course. We all value them in our children, in those we work with, in ourselves. But let us acknowledge at the outset that soft skills do not play out in a social-economic vacuum. Showing up on time or managing one’s time, for example, can be affected by unreliable transportation, untreated medical problems, family emergencies, or pure and simple exhaustion.
There are further limitations with the way we think about soft skills. One is the very separation of hard and soft skills themselves, as though they are neatly distinct and fixed. But, they are, in fact, intimately connected. You can’t very well manage your time, monitor your own performance, or help others if you know little about the field in question. As part of the research I did to write Back to School, I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding. While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively acquired competence, soft skills developed apace. Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.
Furthermore, soft skills are affected by the setting we’re in. I stay focused and persevere when writing something like this blog, but my diligence, not to mention my literacy skills, collapse with tax forms. I witnessed a striking example of the powerful effect of context a while back when I was visiting a high school carpentry program. On the bus over to a Habitat for Humanity construction site, a young man was as obnoxious as could be, mouthing off and insulting other students; several times the instructor who was driving the bus had to tell him to cool it. But the minute he walked onto the job site, his behavior and demeanor changed profoundly. His arrogance and nasty streak disappeared. He was focused on the tasks in front of him, politely raising questions to the instructor, and considerate of the students working with him. The demands of work he cared about brought out the best in him.
An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity. If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do. That work has to have some kind of meaning to those involved. And it has to provide enough security for them to get to work on time.
“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, 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 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 the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility are indisputable. 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?
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.
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 How Children Succeed, a celebration of character education and “non-cognitive skills,” 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.
“The Rise of Grit”
The meteoric rise of “grit” reveals troubling problems in the formation of our public discourse about education. I and many others have written about our policymakers’ culpability in the formation of this discourse, but here I'd like to consider another dimension of the circumstances that give rise to phenomena like the one we’re witnessing with grit.
With some notable exceptions, not many journalists who cover education--and even fewer opinion page columnists--have a solid background in the field. The people who review the few books on education that get coverage--most of which are written by other journalists--are often culture critic types who are bright, to be sure, but not schooled on schooling...so they go to school quickly on the Internet, which will yield the mega-hit hot topics (grit, for example) and the people who champion them. This state of affairs hardly generates the kind of knowledge (and more to the point, understanding) that complex topics in education demand.
The situation I just described leads to a small and closed circle of voices. The concept of grit got the huge attention it did because it was seen as a way to help poor kids persevere in school and achieve their way out of poverty. When the journalists and other writers I mention above are astute enough to question such claims and want to underscore the challenges of poverty, they will find via their search engines trending books and reports on education and poverty that suffer from the same one-dimensional and hot-topic focus as the treatments of psychological traits and character education. So we end up with a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of poverty used to counter a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of character. The result is a sober, well-intentioned discussion that glides over the dense, layered web of poverty, schooling, and students’ lives.
Grit’s rise to glory is something to behold, a case study in the sociology of knowledge. If you go back a dozen or so years, you’ll find University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth investigating the role of perseverance in achievement. This idea is not new in the study of personality and individual differences, but Duckworth was trying to more precisely define and isolate perseverance or persistence as an important personality trait via factor analysis, a standard statistical tool in personality psychology. Through a series of studies of high-achieving populations (for example, Penn undergraduates, West Point cadets, Spelling Bee champions), Duckworth and her colleagues demonstrated that this perseverance quality might be distinct from other qualities (such as intelligence or self control) and seemed to account for between 1.4 to 6.3 percent of all that goes into the achievements of those studied. (Later studies would find several higher percentages.) These findings suggest that over ninety percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off.
It is instructive to read Duckworth’s foundational scholarly articles, something I suspect few staffers and no policy makers have done. The articles are revealing in their listing of qualifications and limitations: The original studies rely on self-report questionnaires, so can be subject to error and bias. The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality. The exceptional qualities of some of the populations studied can create problems for factor analysis. Perseverance might have a downside to it. The construct of perseverance has been studied in some fashion for over a century. These qualifications and limitations rarely make it onto the Opinion Page.
Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding. Rather than calling their construct “perseverance” or “persistence,” they chose to call it “grit.” Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture? The fighter who is all heart. The hardscrabble survivor. True Grit. The Little Train That Could.
Grit exploded. New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as a way to improve American education and, more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.
I’ll get to that last part about poor kids in a moment, but first I want to ask some questions few policy makers are asking. What is an education suitable for a democracy? What kind of people are we trying to develop? What is our philosophy of education? With these questions in mind, let’s consider some items taken from the two instruments Duckworth and colleagues have used in their studies. The items are listed under grit’s two subscales, the factors that comprise grit:
Consistency of Interests Subscale:
· New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
· I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
· I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
Perseverance of Effort Subscale:
· Setbacks don’t discourage me.
· I finish whatever I begin.
· I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
These items are answered on a five-point scale:
Very much like me
Mostly like me
Somewhat like me
Not much like me
Not like me at all
Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic. But at certain ages and certain times in our lives, exploration and testing new waters can also contribute to one’s development and achievement. Knowing when something is not working is important as well. Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes. Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person. By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality, and probably not the best quality in the content of character. The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or, for that fact, the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his “vaulting ambition” would score quite high on grit.) Education in America has to be about more than producing driven super-achievers. For that fact, a discussion of what we mean by “achievement” is long overdue.
But, of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students. Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids. As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.
Can I make a recommendation? Along with the grit survey, let us give another survey and see what the relationship is between the scores. I’m not sure what to call this new survey, but it would provide a measure of adversity, of impediments to persistence, concentration, and the like. It, too, would use a five-point response scale: “very much like me” to “not much like me.” Its items would include:
· I always have bus fare to get to school.
· I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent.
· Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor.
· We always have enough food in our home.
· I worry about getting to school safely.
· There are times when I have to stay home to care for younger brothers or sisters.
· My school has honors and Advanced Placement classes.
· I have at least one teacher who cares about me.
My guess is that higher impediment scores would be linked to lower scores on the grit survey. I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship. Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great. But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.
The foundational grit research primarily involved populations of elite high achievers—Ivy League students, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants—and people responding to a Positive Psychology website based at the University of Pennsylvania. It is from the latter population that the researchers got a wider range of ages and data on employment history.
I was not able to find socioeconomic information for these populations, but given what we know generally about Ivy League undergraduates, West Point cadets, etc., I think it is a safe guess that most come from stable economic backgrounds. (In one later study, Duckworth and colleagues drew on 7-11 grade students at a “socioeconomically and ethnically diverse magnet public school” where 18% of the students were low-income—that’s some economic diversity, but not a school with concentrated disadvantage.) It is also safe to assume that the majority of the people who are interested in Positive Psychology and self-select to respond to an on-line questionnaire have middle-class employment histories with companies or in professions that have pathways and mechanisms for advancement. So the construct of grit and the instruments to measure it are largely based on populations that more likely than not are able to pursue their interests and goals along a landscape of resources and opportunity. This does not detract from the effort they expend or from their determination, but it does suggest that their grit is deployed in a world quite different from the world poor people inhabit.
It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you. It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when the jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections. This certainly doesn’t mean that people who are poor lack determination and resolve. Some of the poor people I knew growing up or work with today possess off-the-charts determination to survive, put food on the table, care for their kids. But they wouldn’t necessarily score high on the grit scale.
Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts. Are we educators and policy makers creating classrooms that are challenging and engaging enough to invite perseverance? Are we creating opportunity for further educational or occupational programs that enable consistency of effort? Are we gritty enough to keep working toward these goals without distraction over the long haul?
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