Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, cognition is “the use of conscious mental processes.”  In other words, cognition is the active process of thinking. However, people utilize both cognitive and non-cognitive skills daily. How can we distinguish cognitive and non-cognitive processes?  Cognitive skills “involve conscious intellectual effort, such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering.”  On the other hand, non-cognitive, or “soft” skills are less conscious. They “are associated with an individual’s personality, temperament, and attitudes.”  These include such characteristics as motivation, perseverance, and interpersonal skills.

In order to succeed academically and professionally, a person must function well on both levels. “Noncognitive skills are those things that aren’t measured on traditional intelligence metrics (e.g., IQ) but are nonetheless being shown in study after study to significantly predict whether or not you’ll be successful.”  In his recent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Power of CharacterPaul Tough contends that the education system’s over-emphasis on cognitive skills may be misguided because they alone cannot insure a student’s success in life.  Rather, he asserts that “the qualities that matter most have more to do with character traits: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.”  Furthermore, in his book, The Collapse of ParentingDr. Leonard Sax asserts that the most important concept that parents can instill in their children is self-control. That is the factor that correlates most strongly with well adjusted, happy adults.

While educators generally measure cognitive skills through a variety of assessments that include teacher-designed and standardized tests, they seldom measure the soft skills.  However, some educators who realize the significance of non-congitive skills are beginning to include some of them into their measurement of student achievement.  One English teacher, Jim Burke, has designed an Academic Essentials checklist that includes such characteristics as curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.  The good news about both cognitive and non-cogntive skills is that they are habits that can be learned. We at Handle Education have methodologies to address these soft skills.











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