Op-Ed: "What's in a Terrible Name?" 'Non-cognitive' skills are crucial—and they need a much better name

May 1, 2015

Op-Ed by Lucinda Fickel, originally published in U.S. News and World Report.

Like many other people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to move the needle for children and for schools, I spend a lot of time thinking about non-cognitive skills. With more and more evidence that non-cognitive skills matter greatly for educational and life success, both practitioners and policymakers are scrambling to capture the non-cognitive lightning in a teaching or measurement or intervention bottle. But invariably my thoughts turn to wishing we could call them by any other name, and hoping that a good name would coalesce support – and action – around what I truly believe is an important, powerful idea.

Almost all discussions of non-cognitive skills include an explanatory list of example traits: persistence, self-discipline, focus, confidence, teamwork, organization, seeking help, staying on task and so on. That reflex to explain persists even though “non-cognitive” has been a topic of discussion in education circles for years. Something is inherently unsatisfying about “non-cognitive,” whether it’s the futility of trying to define something by what it is not, or maybe the fact that non-cognitive actually isn’t all that accurate. It implies feelings and emotions and intuition when we’re talking about something more, well, cognitive.

Economist  and Nobel laureate James Heckman (along with many others) calls them “soft skills.” But can we break free from equating “soft” with “easy,” and, by extension, “unworthy of effort or attention”? Even Heckman, especially when he knows he’s talking to a conservative audience, will use the phrase “character skills.” While that can make a grumbling politician have an ah-ha moment about angling to make young whippersnappers act more like they did in the good ol’ days, it has the problem that most people don’t intuitively think character is a skill.

Others, particularly in the early childhood world, like “executive function.” It has the benefit of conveying that we’re talking about practical life skills that happen to be essential for success not only in school but also in workplaces. I do, however, picture preschoolers in business suits toddling off to a corporate conference room for a marshmallow test. Some philanthropic organizations have anointed them “personal success skills,” which sounds like it’s ready for a Lifehacker listicle, while others gravitate toward “social and emotional learning,” conjuring up images of classroom trust falls.

Macarthur Genius grantee and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth is one of the foremost experts on this topic and has also had remarkable success making the concept palatable to the media, perhaps in part thanks to a blunt distillation: She simply calls it “grit.” Neither too cerebral nor too soft nor too corporate, it’s easy to see the appeal. But is Duckworth’s definition – “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” – inclusive enough? Does it allow for all the complexity and nuance of the interplay among attitudes, beliefs, skills and behaviors that we want to see in a robust approach to non-cognitive skills? Does emphasizing the importance of holding on tightly to a singular goal set us up to put less value on flexibility, adaptability or innovation? (To be fair, Duckworth pairs her work on grit with projects focused on self-control, so she herself is not advocating that grit is the be-all and end-all, but media have definitely gravitated to the label with more pizzazz.)

It’s hard to take something seriously when it has a boring, uninspired name, and it’s hard to galvanize a movement around a diffuse and jumbled set of concepts.

I don’t know which label is best. What we all know is that these skills, traits, attributes, mindsets and behaviors are profoundly important for children’s success in school and in life. It’s hard to take something seriously when it has a boring, uninspired name, and it’s hard to galvanize a movement around a diffuse and jumbled set of concepts. I hope, though, that it won’t derail the growth of a movement that has the potential to dramatically shift how we approach teaching, learning, and what we value in our schools.

Lucinda FickelLucinda Fickel is the associate director of policy at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.