It’s Time to Trash the Terms “Non-Cogs” and “Soft Skills”

They’re everywhere: in print, in conversation, in conference sessions. Invariably, including at SXSWedu last week, references to “the Non-Cognitives” and to “Soft Skills” are accompanied by grimaces and expressions of how much we dislike those terms – but then we use them anyway.* 

On every metric that counts – clarity, accuracy, purposefulness, and impact – both of these terms stink. They fail so badly, in fact, that they may do more harm than good, even coming out of the mouths and laptops and podiums of people who are passionate about elevating the visibility of these important skills and increasing their role in the design of learning and schools.

I am a passionate member of that camp. Somewhere, there’s probably archived evidence of my using “Non-Cog” and “Soft Skills” in settings outside of the privacy of my home. But I hereby commit to never doing so again. (Except as part of this eradication process.) Join me! The solution to this dilemma is at hand. Let’s just stop using them, and replace them with something better.

Herewith: four reasons to do so, and a suggestion for alternative language.

1. These terms mean nothing. “Non-Cog” is especially bereft of meaning. We are fighting a losing battle and setting back our own cause the minute we use it. In uttering “Non-Cog,” we implicitly acknowledge that the concept is so lame, it lacks even a workable label. It can only be defined by what it is not. The term “Soft Skills” is better on this score but not by much. It is also meaningless except as a counterpoint to the much more crucial-sounding “Hard Skills.”

2. These terms are inaccurate. Collaboration? Persistence? Self-management? Grit? Are these really traits that don’t require any form of cognition? One of our NGLC grantees describes the grit he sees in his middle school students who have to plot their walking route to school with care, lest they get shot. That’s Cognition with a capital C. And would it seem appropriate to call these students’ courage, tenacity, resilience, and decision-making ability “soft”? You're right: it would not.

3. These terms set bad practice in motion. It gets worse. In using terms that can only be understood as the “yin” to cognition’s “yang,” we effectively define them by their separateness. The resulting tendency – when well-intended but insufficiently considered concepts become policy and policy becomes practice – is that the fault-lines in the idea become vast canyons in students’ experience of school. “From 10am to 11am: Hard Skill Time. From 11am to noon: Soft Skill Time.” Ugh!

It’s just too distressingly easy to imagine policies in coming years (crafted, again, with the best of intentions) that require x percent of each child’s school day be devoted to development of their “Non-Cogs.” Development of these skills doesn’t happen in compartmentalized units, and schools don’t have time in their day to even try to do so.

Schools that show promise in building the whole continuum of “hard” and “soft” skills are doing so through deliberate integration across their students’ entire learning experience. (See NGLC grantees Generation Schools, Summit Public Schools, the Workshop School, Thrive Public Schools, and e3 Civic High, along with High Tech High, for some examples.)

4. These terms utterly fail to embody their meaning, and so lose much of their potential impact. It’s as if we who have advocated for this side of the skill development spectrum all got together and embraced terms specifically invented for us by “Cog” scientists and “Hard Skill” hard-liners. I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy afoot here, but… really, can’t we come up with language for all of this that is more confidently assertive? A label that says what this is about, and doesn’t content itself with what it is not? Can’t we come up with a term for “Non-Cogs” that exhibits courage, tenacity, self-efficacy, and grit?

As a matter of fact, many of us – on both the policy and practice sides – already use a term that meets these criteria well. We just need to promote it to the top of label-pile. That term is Agency.

Agency fits the bill on at least two important levels:

  • It encompasses the self-efficacy and -management capacities that our standards-era, No Excuses-driven focus on ELA and math proficiency has overlooked. (See how the Council of Chief State School Officers uses the term at the top of its list of “Dispositions” required for college, career, and citizenship readiness.) Students particularly need agency to thrive in what is becoming a global, 21st-century, free-agent economy.
  • It embodies ownership and deep engagement – the pillars on which virtually all of the new models of personalized, next gen learning schools are being designed and built. (See how Eduardo Briceño, Co-Founder & CEO of Carol Dweck’s shop Mindset Works, describes the importance of student agency in High Tech High’s Unboxed journal.)

The importance of Agency to student success in college, career, and life is profound. But my point in this blog is not to convince anyone on that point. (See Tom Vander Ark’s excellent summary, this week, of next gen student success definitions if you need convincing.) It is to suggest a brief pause, reflection, and deliberate adoption of language that lives up to the central importance of persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence (Paul Tough’s partial list from How Children Succeed) in students’ genuine readiness for everything they encounter during their PreK-12 experience – and everything that will follow.

The real challenge, of course, doesn’t lie in the labeling, blogging, and conference room palaver. It lies in the work of visionary educators who are right now creating and running breakthrough model schools – schools incorporating next gen, personalized, competency-based, student-centered, experiential, disruptively blended learning. Later this spring, NGLC will release our MyWays project, designed to support their work with a wide range of tools organized around a synthesized, “new normal” framework for student success in the 21st century.

For now, let’s give these pioneers more wind in their sails by deleting “Non-Cog” and “Soft Skills” from the lexicon. Just give Agency a try, next time you’re tempted to use those other terms. You’ll be helping the field give weight, coherence, and legitimacy to the entire definition of student success, each time you do.

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Andy Calkins is Deputy Director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, an initiative of EDUCAUSE.

*  See, for example, this recent article in the influential Stanford Social Innovation Review, by five leaders in the field including author Paul Tough. Its first reference to “soft skills” is preceded by “so-called” and its concluding section notes, with a palpable sigh: “While we use the word ‘noncognitive,’ we recognize that the field does not yet have a common language for this set of competencies.”

Comments

Thank you Andy! This topic has come up in various conversations I have had over the past week with a number of visionary educators.

Another term I've heard is "Meta-Cognitive Skills". This is slightly better than "Non-Cog" because it's not defining something by what it's not (NGO being the pathological example). "Agency" is better. But I still wonder how we describe this in terms of skills that can be taught or acquired. "Agency Skills" doesn't flow very well. Perhaps "Agency Exercise"? I worry that "Agency" by itself sounds like something that you must possess rather than something you can learn or acquire.

Agreed - not a fan of the terms. Being in conversations about measuring them every single day, we had to come up with something else. So, we started calling them Essential College and Career Skills or "EC Skills" for short. In conversation we just call them Essential Skills. People respond well to "Essential Skills", and within minutes begin using it in conversation. Works for us.

Great comments, everyone. Thank you. @ Brandt -- yes, David Conley has advocated for "meta-cognitive" and in many ways that's a thoughtful and thought-provoking label. It has value within the community of folks actively trying to sort all of this out. I'm not sure, though, that it answers the needs of our grantees and others building personalized-learning schools, who are trying to communicate this in simple, clear, memorable, "sticky" ways to their various constituencies. Essential College and Career Skills has a nice ring to it as a summary for the whole set, and has the advantage of being about the whole. (And it skirts the "readiness" part, which sometimes bugs me because it seems to infer that kids' lives don't really begin until college. Aren't they actively using these skills and habits of mind in the years before that?) The Essential label still needs to be parsed into its various parts, though, and I imagine that brings you to core knowledge, creative know-how, habits of success and wayfinding. If we do away with "non-cog" for the reasons expressed in my blog, we probably should do away with "cognitive" too. We are cognitive creatures and everything we do, whether emotionally-fueled or not, shapes the nature of our cognition. Read "Switch" by the Heath brothers for more on that. I could ruminate endlessly on this topic. Clearly. :)

Thank you for this discussion. I think the vocational education system in Australia has had an obsession with narrow interpretations of competency, reflected in position descriptions with long lists of selection criteria - measurable, concrete and reduced to tiny chunks of 'can-do' robotic matter, jargon and cliche. Essential skills should encompass knowledge, understanding and ethical judgement - those are also key components of agency. Specifically, I'd like to see 'passionate' dropped from those lists, and for graduate employers not to expect a demonstration of personailty traits in interviews.

Great post - we agree about dropping those old labels. We liked "College & Career Ready Skills" but were concerned it limited the goal of education too narrowly; we've added "Citizenship & Life" but then it got too long. So we settled on "Success Skills." Some might think "Essential Skills" means the basics - reading, writing, calculating.

Andy, thank you for raising this topic, which I feel does go far beyond semantics. I agree with your critique of both "soft skills" and "non-cognitive" as less than ideal terms. At Big Picture Learning we have utilized the term "Noncognitive" because that is how Dr. William Sedlacek described them in his research - https://cerpp.usc.edu/files/2013/11/UsingNCV-Sedlacek.pdf... At BPL, we wrote an extensive guide (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/role-noncognitive-skills-for/id904019800?mt=11) utilizing Sedlacek's framework that has received positive attention - (http://gettingsmart.com/2015/02/8-non-cognitive-competencies-college-career-readiness/) It seems to me that what we are actually trying to do is improve students "Executive Functions" and "Self Efficacy" and to ultimately "empower" students... See the definition, "make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights" Like you, I remain dissatisfied with the terms "soft skills" and "non-cognitive"... "Agency" which is a term already in use in particular ways by the Raikes Foundation and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Jeffrey Raikes tweeted that "Student Agency=academic mindsets+learning strategies that lead to better performance in the classroom and in life." - https://twitter.com/jeffraikes/status/467093306480918529 Perhaps once students are "empowered" they can then demonstrate greater "agency"? I look forward to our paths crossing again soon, Andrew

Great blog, Andy! You've raised an important issue and I agree that "non-cognitive" as a term is essentially inaccurate and "soft skills" downplays the importance of those skills. While I dislike the Coleman's "meta-cognitive" term (carries no meaning to people outside this education sector) and think you're getting closer with "agency", it feels to me like gaining agency is a result of acquiring and refining these skills sets we are attempting to label. I'm not advocating for this term, but they seem to me to be life skills and when combined with academic skills, allow an individual to have agency in their life as they move to their life's purpose. We are working with these various terms as we define the skills and dispositions of learners through our work at ReSchool Colorado (http://dkfoundation.org/our-work/reschool-colorado/reschool-colorado). Thanks for the great post!

We've been calling them Essential Skills & Fundamental Dispositions for over 25 years and so far it's working very well. In our Critical Skills Classrooms (http://antiochne.edu/acsr/criticalskills), k-12 teachers intentionally target and assess both content knowledge and skills/ dispositions all the time and kids learn in concrete, contextual ways what it means to be a quality problem solver, collaborator, communicator, leader, manager and creator (among other things). Thanks for raising a great point. I'll be sending this out in our newsletter!

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