Has there ever been a time when most people didn’t believe the following:
So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures.?
There have always been legions of high IQ/high SAT scorers who go on to become remarkable underachievers. There have always been legions of straight-A students whose life trajectories are undistinguished at best. And there have always been legions of academically undistinguished students who, thanks to unusual levels of persistence, end up with highly fulfilling life trajectories, often making enormous contributions to society. And yet, statements like the above (a direct quote from the New York Times Magazine article I blogged about below) keep showing up as breathless revelations.
What’s new in the 20th and 21st centuries isn’t the importance of non-academic skills in society, but society’s emphasis on just one element of that non-academic skills triad—“self-awareness”—and, in particular, on emotional awareness and the sharing and processing of emotions. That’s what we see dominating, for example, in all those Social Emotional Learning packages that are proliferating around our K12 schools (and which were the subject of that NY Times Magazine article)--most recently, Yale University's RULER.
True, the third element of the "non-cognitive skills" triad, persistence (a.k.a. “grit”), did get some brief attention when Paul Tough’s book (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) came out a year ago. But Tough provided no guidelines for teaching grit, and, beyond a resurgence in grit-promoting slogans, grit doesn’t appear to have much of a mark on the classroom.
And yet, I’m willing to bet that grit (a.k.a. persistence) is the most important element of that non-academic skills triad—more important that self-restraint (there are plenty of hot tempered hotshots out there), and a lot more important than emotional awareness and processing.
The lack of grit in classrooms is ironic, especially given that you don’t need to do any special grit-based programming to foster it. The best way to foster grit, after all, is to make the school day more academically challenging. As I've noted earlier:
You develop grit by doing a hard math problem whose solution requires lengthy puzzling out; by answering comprehension questions that make you work through challenging sentences and paragraphs; by revising an essay in response to requests for clarity, economy, and coherence.The problem is that this is happening less and less. As I also noted earlier:
It's true that students today, more than ever before, need grit. But the reason for this has less to do with the vicissitudes of the world outside of school than with what is no longer happening at school. And the solution isn't to send teachers to grit workshops, cover classrooms with grit slogans, and to interrupt academics with grit rallies.The solution, rather, is to foster what happens in Japan, as UCLA psychology professor James Stigler, co-author of The Learning Gap, discussed last year in an interview with NPR’s Alex Spigel:
"We did a study many years ago with first-grade students," he tells me. "We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up." The American students "worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, 'We haven't had this,' " he says. But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. "And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, 'Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!' and they looked at us like, 'What kind of animals are we?' " Stigler recalls. "Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime," he says. "That's a big difference."What can American teachers do to encourage greater persistence? Stigler notes that:
in the Japanese classrooms that he's studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle. "And I just think that especially in schools, we don't create enough of those experiences, and then we don't point them out clearly enough."Giving students more opportunities to struggle with something just outside their reach. Showing students what hard work and struggle can accomplish. With watered down Reform Math and the decline in challenging reading, writing, and revisions assignments, these things are happening less and less.
From persistence, other elements of character follow—particularly self-esteem. We’ve now learned that repeated iterations of “you’re great” have led to a surge of narcissism, that repeated iterations of “you’re so smart,” as opposed to “you worked really hard on that,” have led to a decline in effort, and that repeated iterations of “Never say ‘I can’t’” and “You can be whatever you dream to be” have set kids up for dashed hopes later on in life. The best way to foster meaningful and enduring self-esteem is through assignments that require great persistence but eventually pay off, and assignments that require multiple revisions that lead to a final product of which one can be rightfully proud.
Going back to Stigler’s study, what is the cultural difference at work here? One thing that’s notable in the Japanese students is their sustained attention. In our ADHD afflicted society, might this be part of our problem? It’s interesting that “attention” gets no mention among alongside “self-control, perseverance, and emotional awareness.” As I argue in an earlier post, it belongs at the very top. But few people seem to give attention much attention at all. One refreshing exception is Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz in a recent article in Slate:
Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience…
The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.How do we do this? Part of the problem, as Schwartz argues, is in the way that teachers and others have responded to the attention deficit epidemic. Instead of trying to solve it, they’ve simply keep lowering their attentional demands—shortening and simplifying their sentences and paragraphs. But, just like grit, attention is a skill that should grow alongside academics as problems get more complicated and prose more extended.
Unlike grit, however, a basic level of attention must in place before anything else can happen. As I noted earlier:
To teach someone anything, you need, at minimum, a window of joint attention with that person. As I know from raising an autistic son, when this window of joint attention is rare and fleeting, so, too, are opportunities for direct instruction. Joint attention with neurotypical kids is typically much more frequent and extended, but they, too, are potentially distracted away before you finish what you're saying.Attention skills, as I noted earlier, and as the Schwartz also suggests, appear to be at an all-time low. Distractions, in contrast, are at an all-time high. This is probably not a coincidence. Nor are today’s distractions only about iPhones, websurfing, and social networking. Here in America, our classrooms, too, are more distracting than ever. Increasingly, they seat students in “pods” in which at least half of them don’t faced the teacher. Increasingly, they feature student-centered group work, filling classrooms with four or five simultaneous conversations. Increasingly, they allow—or even require—iphones and tablets in the classroom. Two vicious cycles result: the more distracted students are, the more they distract one another. And the more teachers and textbook authors and others who write books for children shorten their sentences and paragraphs, and the more schools let movies and other videos replace books and lectures, the less the text-messaging, video-crazed generation engages with any kind of extended prose—written or oral.
How do we get highly distracted students to pay attention? Ideally we make sure the stuff we’re teaching is so interesting they can’t help attending to it. But what if they’re too distracted to pay attention long enough to see what’s interesting? Many core academic topics (especially basics like phonics and addition), aren’t immediately gripping. Many interesting ideas can be expressed only in long sentences, and/or require some not-so-interesting preliminary setting up. In some classrooms, therefore, it may be absolutely necessary to lay some basic attention fostering ground rules before attempting to teach anything else. As I noted earlier, one approach that appears to show strong promise here, at least with some students, is KIPP:
Its SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) is all about extending the window of attention so as to make it possible for students to learn from their teachers.Many people dislike SLANT, finding it oppressive and artificial. Perhaps some of them will come up with alternative ways to foster the basic attention skills we need to jumpstart learning—and grit, and self-esteem, and all those other things that underpin a “successful life trajectory.”