Attributes(First of 3 posts)

This conference surged with a spirited optimism.

We can do this: we can improve our ability

  • to predict who will succeed in our schools and colleges and who will benefit from our school’s programs and attributes;
  • to differentiate our institutions and market their unique values;  we can improve our ability to support our incoming students when they arrive by understanding them better in the admissions process;
  • and, perhaps most importantly, in the work of selective admissions, as complicated as they are, we can better choose those students who will best benefit from our programs to make a positive impact in their professions.

Last week I attended the USC Rossier Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice’s Attributes That Matter: Beyond the Usual in College Admission and Success  annual conference.  This is the first of three posts about the conference.

As regular readers know, exploring how we assess what our students are learning, and what things are most important for us to assess,  are  regular pursuits here.

This exciting conference looked at this topic through the prism of university admissions, but there is much we can learn and apply to the K-12 arena from this research.  This is the broader agenda of the this conference is explained by its chair:

What makes students succeed in school and how can we evaluate these things in students applying to our schools or preparing for further education, and what is important for students to learn, master and demonstrate for success later in life?

Eric Hoover at The Chronicle of Higher Ed explains the conference’s purpose this way:

Every year, presidents and professors expect freshmen who are curious, determined, and hungry for challenges. The traditional metrics of merit, however, can’t reveal such qualities. Standardized-test scores may or may not predict a given student’s long-term potential. Grade-point averages present only a partial view of an applicant’s talents and work habits. And so, some admissions officers say, it’s time for a new set of tools.

Critical discussion topics across the course of the conference included:

  1. Recognizing the noncog dimension is essential to all learning and thinking.
  2. Why noncog is increasingly essential to quality admissions assessment.
  3. What are key non-cog domains?
  4. Where do we find and how do we afford these tools?  How do we “operationalize” this?
  5. How’s is the progress of experiminents and initiatives underway in colleges and universities?

Of course, it is critical to recognize that the very Non-Cognitive, which emerged decades ago to describe these areas outside of IQ, are nevertheless entirely interwoven with our cognitive experiences and aptitudes.

Mary Helen Immordino Yang This was among the key messages made by the first night kick-off speaker, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, from USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, on the topic:   Embodied Brains, Social Minds: The importance of social reflectiveness and emotional awareness in young adult development

She argued that

Success in the 21st century requires not just positive results on the usual metrics but results measured in much, broader and richer ways.   We need to prepare people who can manage these changing times, creatively, responsibly, intellectually, socially.

What evidence are we gathering about the nature of emotions, to have a self, to have a subjective sense of purpose—how do we get that sense of self, how do we foster that and cultivate that in our young people?

Neuro-biologically, our minds are inherently social minds, the intellect that we have does not stand independent from the rest of our lives:  we use our intellect collaboratively—and we must take many inferences from the socially embedded minds.

We often think about our students with a brain, their own unique brain, a separate thing unto itself, that we need to support the development of.  But the brain is not a separate thing, not unto itself, in reality it is a highly networked and malleable organ, tightly interconnected into every other brain in the room.

The effective teachers are the ones who can empathize and understand the individual mind and then mirror it back with their own brain so that the inter-connectivity can support every development of that mind.

Feeling social emotions involves the neural mechanisms for feeling and regulating your own body and for constructing your own sense of self.

Emotions are not separate from cognition, you access your memories and your thinking via your feelings—feelings are fundamental parts of intellectual learning.

When we hear a story, we bring to it so much of our backgrounds, our experiences, our points of view and perspectives and biases, and construct so much meaning around that story—and we wish that all our students would have that ability—and at the same time, we bring that story into our own minds, we reflect on who we are and what we’ve done and the choices we’ve made, and change our view of our selves and our identities.  All these things happen in hearing and processing our stories.

Immordino-Yang shared several times her appreciation for the way the arts can capture, distill, articulate this powerful integration of feeling and thinking, and shared a poem from Stanley Kunitz, The Layers, US Poet Laureate, which she explained conveys the way our intellectual and cognitive life is so enormously shaped by our life experiences.

I have walked through many lives

Some of them my own

And I am not who I was

Though some principle of being

Abides from which I struggle

Not to stray…

The thesis, then, might be this: “Learning, in the complex sense in which it happens in schools or the real world, is not a rational or disembodied process; neither is it a lonely one.

The Q & A for this sessions was fascinating:

Q. What is the significance of the emotional connection’s impact on learning for thinking about the value of online education?

A: It doesn’t impact online learning negatively, because you can be powerfully moved by emotional stories even at a distance, by storytelling narrative, video and audio, even compelling visual images, providing you are already a skilled enough of a learner to connect and empathize.

Q: While it may be true that emotional affect influences much of how we think and learn,  that emotional affect and impact can powerfully enhance learning, but that doesn’t mean that affect’s impact is optimal for thinking and learning, quite the opposite, don’t you agree.  ?

A: No.   You cannot separate the affect from the cognitive.  What you need is people who can feel sensitively the emotions that matter in the situation and not let get in the way the emotions that don’t matter in the situation… there is affect in all cognition, but you need to regulate the affect that doesn’t matter to the decision but access the affect that does matter.  Affect is so important to rationality.  Affect is integral to all good rationality.     But how to regulate it, how to manage it for the better, is the issue.

She closed with the message that all educators must understand and practice the rule that our role is to inspire– breath into, give emotional life to what we are teaching and what students are living.  Inspiration is the key, it gives learners an impetus to do something meaningful and make sense of a cognition going on so you’ll use it for something.

Eric Hoover at the Chron of Higher Ed summarizes Immordino-Yang’s message this way:

Logical-reasoning skills and factual knowledge are only so valuable on their own. Students also need an “emotional rudder”—an ability to transfer skills and knowledge to real-world situations—to succeed. “Simply having the knowledge,” they wrote, “does not imply that a student will be able to use it advantageously.”

If that’s true, then colleges annually accrue an abundance of input variables that may have little bearing on the long-term outcomes their marketing materials and mission statements so often describe.

The implications for K-12 educators while significant are hardly novel.  Recognizing and emphasizing social-emotional dimensions of learning is a principle practice for most of us in the way we teach, but not nearly so much, I believe, in the way we assess– evaluate the progress of our learners, or evaluate the potential for prospective students in the work of admissions.     But now, there are increasingly available tools for this, as I will share in some subsequent posts.