“There are so many variables in what Duckworth calls the Non-Cognitive mosh-pit: how do you organize them into a comprehensible and clear framework?”

“I see the value of assessing non-cognitive qualities, and grit/perseverance in particular, but the real important thing is to teach and cultivate it: how is the best way to do that?”

In the past few months, because of my work with the SSATB Think Tank on the Future of Admissions Assessment, both of the above questions have arisen multiple times during my presenting, discussing, and consulting about NonCognitive assessment.

For both, I’ve been working on developing better answers, and– wow– the University of Chicago CCSR report embedded atop is a tremendous asset and resource for answering and addressing both questions.

images (4)


The report came to my attention by being discussed, and indeed, celebrated at not one but two conferences I attended back to back in April, the Deeper Learning Network Conference at High Tech High in San Diego and the National Partnership for Educational Access in Boston.

But as much as I had heard it praised, it nevertheless exceeded my expectations.  This is a masterful overview and analysis of what matters among non-cogs in the service of supporting our students success to, through, and beyond secondary schooling.

Back to to the two top framing questions.  First, how can we best organize logically and coherently the array of attributes and activities that are aswim in this conversation?  In conversation recently with Angela Duckworth, she guided me toward what is a useful simplification, though really almost too much of an oversimplification, which is the same one used by the National Research Council in its highly valuable 2012 report, Education for Life and Work.

education for life and work key graphic

As stated, it is very simplified, but still useful: there are three domains, and we need to think about how we are recognizing, understanding, teaching and assessing each of them: Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal.

But, the Chicago Consortium on School Research report takes it a next level of complexity while retaining reasonable clarity and coherence.    As the graphic below (labeled 2.1) from the report shows, and it is a graphic worth studying closely,  five non-cog elements play together and converge to generate improved academic performance:

  1. academic behaviors (like attending class and doing homework);
  2. academic mindsets such as optimism, locus of control, and the Deck growth mindset;
  3. Academic Perseverance, which is roughly equal to Duckworth’s grit, though the Chicago authors see it as a subset or specific manifestation of a broader grit personality trait;
  4. Learning Strategies; and
  5. Social Skills.

Chicago noncognitive report graphic

Onto the second question: what do we know about the malleability of these factors, and what is the best approach to teaching the one most currently being talked about, grit or perseverance.   The answer is in the graphic above, and I could just leave it at that, but at least for my own sake, let me spell it out.    (more…)

It was terrific to have the chance this month both to see the keynote from Angela Duckworth at NPEA and to have 90 minutes sitting with her in a small group conversation with the SSATB Think Tank.

As many now know, she has become something of “the guru of grit” in the last year or two, particularly with the attention brought to her work by the writing of Paul Tough in his book and New York Times magazine cover story.  She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  I wrote about her work, her TEDx talk, and the Tough book previously here. 

images (4)Duckworth opened her keynote with the message that academic skill development is always interwoven with so-called “non-cog” skills.

The stuff kids need to learn in school is hard.   It’s really hard.  But it is not too hard.  Every child in my classroom– whether it took two hours or twenty hours– could learn this.    It isn’t quantum mechanics, it is Algebra.    In other countries most kids get it because they have the expectation that everyone can do this and they have attitude that it just takes a lot of work to get there.

IQ is not the limiting factor for most of our children.” We shouldn’t tolerate lower expectations for some kids.

Algebra is hard in another way- psychologically, for instance.  Is it hard to persist when it is challenging.

“if you can build non-cog skills, you will boost academic achievement. It is NOT either/or, but BOTH/AND.”

The message, of course, about the value of persistence, is not just for our kids: it is for all of us.   As she explained, and tied it to her own work and the work of everyone in the audience at NPEA, doing the hard work of providing quality education to disadvantaged youth, “It’s not a one year or two year project for any of us in life, tackling something hard and trying to make a real difference.”

angeladuckworthGrit is about “remaining loyal to your commitments.  Perseverance and Passion for long-term goals. Achievement = talent x effort. Anything multiplied by 0 = 0. Grit is about some talent but more about passion and perseverance.”

But we are all deceived, so much of the time, by the false impressions most others give off of gently gliding along the surface, like a duck with no worries.    “We need to show kids, and help them see, that below the waterline we are all paddling furiously.”

Duckworth emphasized the importance of not just teaching grit in some narrow method, but of deeply “Building a culture of grit, making it self-conscious and publicly visible for all.”

In an amusing and telling example, she shared the importance in Finland of a term roughly equivalent to grit, “sisu.”   There, she explained, Sisu is surfaced constantly:  “How’s your sisu today?”  “I’m feeling a bit down in my Sisu this week.”

Duckworth, speaking to an audience whose lives are devoted to helping students succeed in K-12 and collegiate education, stated the problem boldly and baldly: “We are not succeeding– we are getting kids well prepared academically, but they’re still not succeeding in college and careers– what do we need to do differently?”

We need to research, design interventions, experiment, and study results.  (more…)

Bill Fitzsimmons is the long-time Dean of Admissions at Harvard, and truly an important“dean” among university admissions officers.   I spent a few hours with him last week, listening to him present on a panel at NPEA, the National Partnership for Educational Access,  and then discussing admissions with him during a small group Think Tank conversation about the issues entailed in admissions assessment.

(Not e that quotes are roughly paraphrased from my notes on our conversation, and are not verbatim).

Fitzsimmons clearly loves his work.   He told us he is himself a first-generation college-goer, and reflects on that regularly in his work.    On April 10, a date you’d think would be a bit hectic for an Ivy league admissions dean, he spent two hours with our Think Tank, from 830pm to nearly 1030pm!

In the opening NPEA panel, to which he contributed greatly, much of his message was the importance he placed, and the progress Harvard (and other Ivies) are making, on widening access to under-represented populations, particularly now the lowest family income groups.

He told us of taking the Harvard undergrad population in the past six years or so from 11% to 17% Pell Grant eligible.  We’ve come a long way from asking ourselves whether “we were truly going to be  players in the educating of future leaders or boutiques for the wealthy and advantages.” “Private higher ed is back in the game.”   For 90% of Americans now, in contrast to ten years ago, it will cost less per year to send kids to Harvard (and other elite privates) than to their in-state flagship public institution.”

Still on the panel, he emphasized: “We need to look at all the human qualities of all our applicants, in all their complexity.”

In our smaller Think Tank conversation, he reminded us issues around expanding admissions criteria are neither new nor narrowly restricted: in the seventies Dean Willingham (?) of Williams College argued for the importance of selecting applicants for “persistent followthrough” which presages today’s focus on “grit,” and even today in China, land of the GaoKao, they are creating ways to accommodate rural applicants with lower test scores but greater perceived character traits than their urban peers.

Fitzsimmons told us that in round numbers at Harvard, which is as most know extraordinarily selective (2200 admitted out of 35,000—note that these 35,000 are those high school seniors self-selecting themselves to apply to Harvard), roughly 75% are admitted exclusively or especially for cognitive qualities, and 25% are admitted for the “bump” their applications get by demonstrated compelling non-cog attributes.    To compare these two groups finds no difference, he told us , in their success rate as undergrads: both have extremely high graduation rates, both at about 98%.

He said that among the things most important for their process is the teacher and counselor recommendations—particular when a student is rated as “one of the best in the past ten years.”

He also was emphatic about the importance of welcoming any and all student work which applicants wish to share: “we’ve been big on the portfolio piece for a long time.” (more…)