This post originally appeared on the Education Week blog Global Learning, May 21, 2015.

i’ve been working on various projects around noncognitive (social-emotional leaning and 21st century competency) assessments for the past three years, as some readers know, including for Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSAT-B) and for Index and its Mission Skill Assessment.  Recently the Asia Society published a new paper, A Rosetta Stone for NonCognitive Skills, which I co-authored with Richard Roberts, Ph.D., the former ETS research scientist who designed the Mission Skills Assessment.    The following was posted to EdWeek as a teaser of sorts for the full paper. 


“It’s become a Tower of Babel,” Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Chris Gabrieli said recently when presenting at the Brookings panel, “Ready to be Counted? Incorporating Noncognitive Skills into Education Policy.” Gabrieli listed the nearly dozen labels used to describe  21st century skills or noncognitive skills, including character, soft skills, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and many more.

It’s not just here in the U.S.: this is a global phenomenon. In one recent post, UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education examined the shift toward transversal competencies in the Asia-Pacific region. The OECD calls them skills for social progress.

These terms each come with a different list of associated skills, strengths, competencies, and attributes.   The table we’ve prepared below names almost 50 of these skills, and it isn’t even exhaustive.

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As the pendulum swings back from the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind, researchers, policymakers, and educators alike are returning their attention to the enormous importance of student affect, attitude, and effort, and their ability to self-control, collaborate, and commit themselves to learning.  Nearly every school system now recognizes that in order to have a world-class education system, students must be advancing in more than the cognitive and academic achievement domain.

To make the most of the opportunity to address the social and emotional skills gap, we have to be able to make sense of the Tower of Babel. How do we know how all these various skills and attributes relate to one another—and whether one group’s teamwork is another’s collaboration; one group’s work ethic is another’s responsibility?

The Big Five Factor Personality Model
There is a powerful way to reconcile, translate, and unify the myriad of terms and constructs that have emerged over the past decade. It isn’t new, and in fairness, in many psychology circles it is no secret, but it has been problematically underappreciated in education. It is the “Big Five” factor model of personality.

Under the assumption that all important matters in life have been named and are thus represented in our language, researchers in the 1930s searched Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1925 for English words that described human characteristics. In total, 18,000 English words were selected, with 4,500 being classified as descriptions of stable personal traits. They then analyzed the underlying patterns among them to reduce the massive list of traits, and studied personality data from different sources (e.g., interpersonal ratings, objective measures of daily behavior, and questionnaire results), and measured these traits in diverse populations to arrive at first 16, and then five, major personality factors.

These analyses consistently yielded five factors that were labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism/Emotional Stability, and Openness.

Even though they were first discovered in the English language, replication studies in other major languages resulted in the same five factors. Indeed, this research has proven the Big Five’s universality in the vast majority of countries, cultures, and languages across the world. In short, the Big Five play an important role in human nature, independent of the environment writ large. See below for the countries where the Big Five have thus far been replicated.

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Last winter, the Headmaster of The Hill School, Zachary Lehman, had a vision for his annual board retreat: he would engage trustees more meaningfully and educate them about the 21st century learning concepts which he’s leading his school toward by reconstructing the board retreat itself as a 21st century classroom.     Headmaster Lehman asked my assistance, which I was delighted to provide, and we fashioned a 2 day program which was by all accounts highly successful.    The Hill School’s videographers fashioned the video above to tell the story, at least in part. Enjoy.

Zack Lehman and I presented about this new kind of board meeting, which can also be a model for other types of meetings in school, including admin retreats and faculty days, at the annual meetings of both PAIS and TABS (Washington DC, December.  For NAIS (Boston, February), I’ll be accompanied by Clair Ward, Head of School at Valley School of Ligonier; if you are attending either event, please consider this video a trailer and teaser for the full session, and we hope you will join us.

Having enjoyed the success of this experience, the Hill School board intends never to revert to previous form; this is the new format of their meetings.  At their most recent event, they went on to employ Design Thinking to develop programs as part of the capital campaign and master plan planning.     We both, Headmaster Lehman and myself, are converts and believers, and are eager to advance this model of meeting and learning, and are both happy to answer questions or be of service to schools wishing to employ this model in their meetings. Contact me at for more information. msa docs MSA-Toolkit-Interactive.pdf

INDEX, a school benchmarking association, developed the Mission Skills Assessment with researchers at ETS to measure students’ proficiency and growth in six character or noncognitive skill areas: teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity, and time management.

In a report prepared for the ASIA Society of deeper learning schools by the RAND Corp entitled Measuring 21st century Competencies, researchers reviewed the breadth of tools currently available for assessing these competencies, and declared the MSA, which is now used at over 90 schools nationally and globally, as the singularly most impressive, finding it especially cost-effective, easy to use,  with strong reliability, validity, and resistance to faking.

I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the INDEX board and its executive director, Lisa Pullman, to research and write this user’s guide and toolkit for schools, empowering them to better use the MSA to improve student growth in the six Mission Skills.   INDEX has graciously permitted me to share it here.

Below the toolkit I’ve also posted a charming video about the MSA from one of its original founding schools, New Canaan Country School.



Pleased to share here the just completed SSAT Think Tank on the Future of Assessment Special Report 2014.   For the 2013 report, click here.   It was a pleasure to work with my SSAT colleagues in preparing this, and a delight to speak with so many fascinating people whom we profile and interview in the report.


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If you’re like me, one of the joys of summer is the time it makes available to catch up and jump ahead on the reading list.  I know I spend each spring nearly as much time deciding what to read as I spend reading itself.

Drawing upon my own reading in the past twelve months,  I’m pleased to share here some summer reading recommendations for Summer 2014.

(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for

My annual lists are usually populated primarily by books published in the past year or so, but this year’s list is a bit broader, with about a third of its titles dating back over the past three or four years.   This is because as I worked this past year on preparing the OECD Test for Schools toolkit (see previous post), I did a deeper dive on two related topics, using data in schools and international benchmarking, and doing so brought me to some terrific, previously overlooked,  titles I am delighted to share on this list.

(Note: I write a monthly book recommendation column, “Sparks” for the L+D newsletter, and in some of the bits below, I’ve “self-plagiarized” a bit,  drawing upon and re-purposing from some of those pieces.)

The Top Ten 2014 Summer Reading Recommendation for 21st century educators (this year with indication on titles suitable for Beach Reading!)

(For those on a budget, Scroll to the bottom for five additional recommended freebies!).

berger   1. 2014 is only half over, but the front-runner for 2014’s  educational book of the year has to be Ron Berger’s Leaders of their Own Learning. This book elevates assessment to the its rightful place in the center, not the after-thought back-end, of learning, and to its rightful home in the heart and mind of each individual student.   For Berger, assessment is collaboration: “As students are given the tools to understand and assess their own strengths and challenges, their ability to take ownership increases.  In very concrete ways, students become leaders of their own learning- understanding learning targets, tracking their progress, using feedback to revise their work, and presenting their learning publicly-and partners with their teachers.”

The book is chock-full of action items and organizing lists for implementing this program, but especially wonderful are the charming, lovely, and sometimes even tear-inducing short essays with Berger which open each chapter: nobody writes as beautifully about children learning.

berger ethicPAIR THIS BOOK> Berger’s 2003 title, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship belongs in the Hall of Fame.  In this extended, almost-lyrical essay, Berger writes as both a master cabinet maker and as an elementary school teacher to testify that it is the work that matters, and that when this is our guide and foundation, we can see student work soar and sparkle spectacularly.


Make-Space-Cover-e1325835564910-730x7302.  Wonderfully eclectic and beautifully graphic, both how-to manual and philosophical essay, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration  published in 2012 was my singularly favorite read of 2013 and is my most frequently recommended book of the past year.   Co-authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, who are also co-directors of the “Environmental Collaborative” of the Stanford d. School (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), bring the intellectual animation and ingenuity of the d. School to life on these 250 pages.

third teacherHow_Buildings_Learn_(Stewart_Brand_book)_coverPAIR THIS BOOK> Make Space stands tall among a set of wonderful titles in this extremely fascinating genre, such as the comprehensive and highly visual survey of learning space enhancements, The Third Teacher (2010) and Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1995 treatise on the importance of adaptability and continuous evolution of space, How Buildings Learn.

Data-Wise-in-Action-DWIA__35995.1361422570.325.4003. Data Wise  (rev. 2103) and Data Wise in Action (2007) are comdata wisepanion titles
from the Harvard GSE and the its Data Wise project.  I think they are dynamite resources for any school administrator or teacher who wants to become more intentional, systematic, and action-oriented in using student assessment results meaningfully.    Every school collects data of various kinds, but very few school-folks, I fear, and I know I speak for my past-self as a principal, effectively use the ever-growing pile of numbers and statistics to make meaning and make change. In these titles, the path is clearly marked (in Data Wise) and effectively illustrated (in in Action).  The spirit of these books is very appealing, empowering and honoring the professionalism of teachers in an approach that is student-centered, inclusive, collaborative and reflective.  Highly recommended for all administrators and for those teachers interested in this subject and wanting see teaching to become not data-DRIVEN but data-WISE.  


sticks and stones4. Emily Bazelon, a legal journalist for Slate, writes from outside our ranks with highly attuned empathy, compelling storytelling, and great common sense to the enormously complex phenomenon in schools which we problematically reduce to the one-word characterization “bullying” in her 2013 title, Sticks and Stone: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.   Carefully recounting in great detail three notorious examples of bullying in schools, she calls it like she sees it, applying a careful definition—repeated and sustained physical or verbal abuse in a situation of unequal power—to each event and unpacks the complexity that lies behind the actions and decisions.  School-leaders are spared little mercy for their mistakes, but are offered sympathy as their situations escalate and misunderstandings accrue.   The book isn’t perfect: the promised-by-the-introduction section sharing solutions doesn’t bring the reader as far as one would have hoped, though the resource guide at the back is a useful tool.  PAIR THIS>  I’d suggest pairing this with the excellent anti-bullying report prepared for Harvard’s Berkman Center and the Born This Way foundation by danah boyd and Andover Headmaster John Palfrey: they are really great resources on this subject.  (Bazelon: BEACH READING!)


SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.125. This book isn’t by any means, the smartest book of the year: it disappoints on several fronts, but it’s still a worthy (and easy) read.   Ripley beautifully honors they student-eye perspective on high school,  illuminating international educational practices through the eyes of students she literally follows  around the world to Poland, Finland, and South Korea.  By reflection upon their authentic experiences she evaluates schooling: would that we all did the same more regularly. She cross references the anecdotal with authoritative PISA data to offer fascinating insights about comparative educational practice, and she doesn’t hesitate to proffer the strong opinions she has drawn from her research, controversial though they might be (against technology and athletics, for high stakes exit testing and national standards).   Very much worth reading as a conversation (or argument) starter and as an accessible introduction to international benchmarking and comparative educational studies. (BEACH READING!)


49398_Hargreaves_Global_Fourth_Way_72ppiRGB_150pixw6. Reading Ripley might entice some to go deeper into global educational studies, and there are some terrific, richer and wiser, books available.   Having read three of them recently, my pick among this trio is from Boston College professors Hargreaves and Shirley: The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence.    The authors explain what they mean by the fourth way of educational change, which includes broadening the range of learning beyond the basics, using data to inform teacher inquiry not “drive it,” testing by sampling, and teachers as the co-creators of curriculum, not the deliverers of it.  The discussion of the fourth way by itself is worthy of extended examination and discussion as a model for educational transformation—it is worth the while.

The authors also tackle the fascinating and complex problem of whether innovation and improvemeallure_of_order-194x300nt are at odds or can be reconciled in the pursuit of excellence, and they then survey six surpassing shanghaidifferent case studies to exemplify the fourth way.  Some of the six they profile are a bit too familiar (Finland, Singapore) or fall a bit short in convincingly illuminating the Fourth Way in practice (California especially), but the sections on England (a particular school there), Ontario as a province, and especially the province of Alberta are inspiring and informative.  Bravo Alberta!

PAIR THIS> with Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai and or Mehta’s Allure of Order, both of which similarly scan the international landscape and draw fascinating and applicable insights for US education.


leadingOnline.225x225-757.  If you are reading this blog post, you are probably already someone practicing online learning and leadership, and so you’ll easily agree with me that it was great to see this past year three Jersey educators issue two excellent guides for the practice of digital and online leadership.  From Montclair Kimberly Academy, Richards and Valentine argue in their short, colorfully illustrated Leading Online:  “These days, leaders look out for their organizations by looking out of their organizations… they know you don’t have to leave school to leave school.”   And they know that no matter how powerful the technology, human decision-making is still demanded.   As they explain in a chapter entitled “Design for Spaces, Care for Spaces,” tools cannot reorganize, synthesize, or make meaning:  “these tasks fall to the leader.” PAIR THIS> with the following.


sheninger8. New Jersey high school principal Eric Sheninger offers Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, which comprehensively covers the terrain of his topic and his passion.  This is a how-to introduction, with chapters on communication, public relations, branding, professional growth and PD, and increasing student engagement. Sheninger recognizes the challenge of digital leadership, and recounts mistakes he has made.   He opposes the idea of cultivating buy-in, which he says “requires a salesman-like approach that might contain if-then rewards.  We have no mandates to use technology at [my school.]”   Instead, he urges “Embracement attained through empowerment and autonomy.”


smarter-than-you-think9. Wired magazine columnist Clive Thompson published last fall Smarter Than You Think, which will brighten your outlook and bring many ideas to mind about the future of learning in a digitally enhanced, connected world.  The “huge impact on our cognition” digital tools are making is grouped into three major categories: “they allow for prodigious external memory; … make it easier for us to find connections– between ideas, pictures, bits of news– that were previously invisible; … [and] encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing which has many surprising effects.” (BEACH READ!)


download10. Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st century, comes from what until recently Karen Cator’s excellent EdTEch shop at the US Department of Education—and it is free for download.  Available at the USDOE since Febraury 2013, it is confusingly still labeled a “draft,” but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile reading.  As the importance of non-cognitive factors for student success has surged back into consciousness these past several years, and most particularly that of what Duckworth calls grit,  many have been responding: OK, stipulated, but HOW?   Even Duckworth’s own TED talk offers next to no guidance on this question.

This DOE 100 page free resource, after reviewing terminology and fostering gritassessments, walks the readers through more than fifty intervention programs and methods for doing so, and then provides valuable recommendations for policy-makers, educational leaders, and parents for this work.   PAIR WITH>  Hoerr’s ASCD “Aria” sort book, Fostering Grit—though if you have time for only one, choose the DOE’s freebie.


Bonus: Five more Freebies
As noted, number 10 on the list above is yours for free, and do remember that your summer reading doesn’t have to cost you the equivalent of a special restaurant  with your best friend.  Many excellent special reports and even full book titles are available for free as downloads.


nrc report cover1. One is the National Research Council’s comprehensive, evidence-based, rich and rewarding 200 page 2012 book, Education for Life and Work. It’s not the lightest reading, but it provides an excellent foundation in what is known already, what we must inquire into more thoroughly, and develop more completely, to advance true 21st century learning.

The NRC frames this “education for life and work” as “Deeper Learning:”
“Calls for such “21st century skills” as innovation, creativity, and creative problem-solving can also be seen as calls for deeper learning—helping students develop transferable knowledge that can be applied to solve new problems or respond effectively to new situations.”
photo2. The National Research Council has also helpfully summarized its research for educators, in the succinct and accessible Practitioner’s Guide.

measuring 21st century competencies3. The Asia Society engaged researchers from the RAND corporation to prepare a really interesting and useful report which I think would be found valuable reading for all who are engaged in advancing 21st century learning.    Called “Measuring 21st century Competencies: Guidance for Educators,” it is about sixty pages in length, and after helpfully defining this set of competencies, and reviewing the key issues in testing and assessment generally, it reviews a wide array of techniques and tools for doing so.   Interestingly, it chooses one as being most worthy of a “deeper look,” the Mission Skills Assessment from the Index group, and the discussion it provides about this fast emerging tool, (full disclosure: one with which I have an association) is very informative about the future of non-cognitive assessment.

PISA-2012-(vol4)--Cover-(eng)-miniature4. The OECD, based in Paris, owns and manages PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment—which makes news every three years for its “league tables” ranking national educational performance.  Less well known is that its team of educational researchers spends years reviewing the testing data and studying international educational practices to prepare fascinating reports on what works in education—and they are all free.  There are half a dozen or more I especially like, including the two Lessons for the US from PISA (2009) and (20012), but my top pick is the recent 2013 publication: PISA Results 2012:  What makes school successful.  Learn what these researchers have found about areas such as governance, school climate, student grouping, grade repetition, student-teacher ratio, teacher professional development, and much more.


SSATB  Who We Are » Think Tank » Think Tank Special Report 2013 (1)5. Forgive me tooting my own horn, but I’d add last to this list the “Special Report on the Future of Assessment” published last summer by SSAT, a 24 page review of the big ideas, leading thinkers, and innovative practices in non-cognitive assessment.    (Note, a second SSAT special report is due out in a few weeks.  Check back here or at the SSAT website to grab it when it is available).


If you’re looking for even more “freebies” for 21st century learning reading, be sure also to check out the DML website of the MacArthur foundation.  They’ve teamed up with MIT press to publish a series of fascinating volumes such as Measuring What Matters Most and The Future of the Curriculum, and they’re all available for free download.

Enjoy your summer reading, and please: take a moment to use the comment box to share your suggestions for summer reading for 21st century educators.

This sixty page guide is really several things in one.

  • It is in part a guide to this particular tool, the OECD Test for Schools (Based on PISA), a test which individual schools, public and private, can participate in.
  • It also provides some high level treatment of the test’s alignment of PISA testing with 21st century skills and  “Deeper Learning.”  See the Appendix.
  • Finally, in the first full section, “leading your OECD program” and in the Case Studies section, the assessment example is OECD testing, but the framework and the treatments can serve as a guidance generally for how schools can best manage a new assessment tool project, using that new test or tool to advance student learning outcomes.



nrc report coverI made reference to this excellent National Research Council report just last week, explaining how I drew upon it for my “explorations of the 21st century learning landscape” presentation.  But that was just a glancing reference to it, really; now, in a short series of posts over the next few days, I want to pull out and share some key pieces of this report.

As valuable as this 204 page report it, it is not entirely easy reading, and surely some who are reading this are not likely to get to it anytime soon.   Its value is multi-faceted; first, because of its comprehensively broad survey of the educational priorities and methods required for successfully preparing students for the coming decades, and second, because its imprimatur from the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, makes it impossible to dismiss as the wild-eyed ideas of a partisan progressive radical.

Among its priorities are establishing the critical competencies– defining them by citing a 2005 OECD PISA report, which defines competencies as being

…more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilizing psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.

This report reviews the many which came before it, citing one which reviewed 59 in total, finding that the most commonly cited 21st century skills were “collaboration, communication, information and communications technology (ICT) literacy, and social or cultural competencies.”

Taking a slight tangent, the authors here very usefully surface a never-ending issue around the identification, listing and taxonomy of such 21st century skills: how do we separate these out from each other, when so many overlap so greatly.   They call this the Jangle fallacy— a term previously unfamiliar to me but which I’m so glad to have in my vocabulary.  It is when “investigators sometimes used different measures—with different names–to study a single psychological construct or competency.”  Examples abound, such as collaboration and teamwork, or flexibility and adaptability: are these different competencies, or are we jangling here?  The problem is more important when you get to this issue: perhaps “separate measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy were in fact focusing on a single core construct?”

Hence, the NRC report creates separate tiers for their taxonomy of the essential competencies, beginning with a big three set of bubble which are certainly distinguishable, dropping down to a second tier of critical components of each of the big three bubbles, and then sprinkling the bubbles with a dozen or more individual terms which are increasingly hard to distinguish altogether.

NRC report bubbles

If you’re curious about which of the many non-cog competencies is singularly most important, by their research, here is your answer:

Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness (a tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking) is most highly correlated with desirable outcomes in education and the workplace. Anti-social behavior, which has both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, is negatively correlated with these outcomes.

Hardly surprising–and not too terribly illuminating, because in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to easy to teach or develop directly.  (But see the Chicago report, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners” for more guidance on this.

So what is the point of educating for these competencies, anyway?  Why are they so important, if we are educating for life and work?

The committee views the broad call for  “21st century skills” as reflecting a long-standing issue in education and training – the desire that individuals develop transferable knowledge and skills.

Associated with this is the challenge of creating learning environments that support development of the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies that enable learners to transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems. These competencies include both knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems—integrated forms of knowledge that we refer to as “21st century competencies” and discuss further below.

Now, if our students will have little need to “transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems,” then there is no need to develop these capacities.   But, as we know, routine work is no longer routine.

work routines

So for nonroutine work, these competencies are more essential.  (more…)


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