Social And Emotional Skills: We Still Can’t Define Them

Counseling-Hoboken

More and more, people in education agree on the importance of schools’ paying attention to stuff other than academics.

But still, no one agrees on what to call that “stuff.”

I originally published a story on this topic two years ago.

As I reported back then, there were a bunch of overlapping terms in play, from “character” to “grit” to “noncognitive skills.”

This bagginess bugged me, as a member of the education media. It bugged researchers and policymakers too. It still does.

If anything, the case for nonacademics has gotten even stronger since then. In fact, it has been enshrined in federal law. The Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that states measure at least one nonacademic indicator of school success.

There is also new research indicating that school-based interventions to promote social and emotional skills have large, and long-term, positive impacts: an average of $11 for every dollar invested, according to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which is a supporter of NPR).

But despite all the hoopla there is still — still! — no consensus on how to define these indicators, or even on what to call them.

“Basically, we’re trying to explain student success educationally or in the labor market with skills not directly measured by standardized tests,” Martin West, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, originally told me.

“The problem is, you go to meetings and everyone spends the first two hours complaining and arguing about semantics.”

West studies what he calls “noncognitive skills,” although he is not completely happy with that term.

This isn’t just a semantic issue, argues Laura Bornfreund at the New America Foundation. She wrote a paper on what she called “Skills for Success” because she didn’t like any of these other terms.

“There’s a lot of different terms floating around but also a lack of agreement on what really is most important to students.”

As Noah Webster, the great American lexicographer and educator, put it back in 1788: “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”

Yet he didn’t come up with a good catchall, either.

So, in Webster’s tradition, here is a short glossary of terms that are being used to talk about that cultivation of the heart.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning,, a research and advocacy group, these include the “4Cs of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity,” as well as “life and career skills” and “information, media and technology skills.”

The problem, says West, is that “if anything, all the evidence would suggest that in the closing decades of the 20th and 21st centuries, cognitive skills became more important than ever.” So this term, although it’s often heard in business and technology circles, doesn’t necessarily signal the shift in focus that some researchers want.

Character education has a long history in the U.S., with a major vogue in the 1930s and a revival in the 1980s and 1990s. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of charter schools, for example has a curriculum of seven “character strengths”: grit, zest, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

“We’re not religious, we’re not talking about ethics, we’re not going to give any kind of doctrine about what is right from wrong,” says Leyla Bravo-Willey of KIPP Infinity in Harlem. “But there are some fundamental things that make people really great citizens, which usually include being kind.”

West argues that the use of “character” is inappropriate in research and policymaking because of its moral and religious connotations.

He notes that many of the qualities on the KIPP list — grit and self-control, for example — are designed to prepare students for success. “That’s in tension with a traditional understanding of character, which often implies something being good in and of itself — which often includes some notion of self sacrifice,” says West.

That distinction doesn’t bother Bravo-Willey. She says that the school is responding to parents’ own wishes that their children be happy and good as well as successful. To read more from Anya Kamenetz, click here.