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Do You Think There Should Be A Noncognitive Budget? I Do!

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
March 13, 2021

As an industry we invest a significant amount of funding to facilitate and assess the teaching of content. As teachers, we deliver content and students are tested on how much they know. That is the paradigm, right? As I posed in this article, we know that when students develop noncognitive skills and executive functions they are more successful academically. Yet, as teachers, we are hired (a big chunk of funding) to teach the content of our courses (another big chunk) and assess student progress (another big chunk). This has always perplexed me. If we know the bedrock for learning why not explicitly invest in that foundation. Just reread The Three Little Pigs to be reminded, that of course, the house, or what we teach and learn, is paramount to education. But then take a moment to read the parable of the House on the Rock to be reminded that no matter how strong the house, if the foundation is weak, it will never last.  

I have always wondered how students’ academic experience and their outcomes would change if we flipped this paradigm and invested in their foundation in the same way we invest in their house. 

Coupling Skills With Content

Herein lies the art of teaching. Even though we know their importance to learning, we make a mistake if we focus on the development of noncognitive skills and habits in isolation. When effectively taught, these factors must be modeled alongside, or in conjunction with, the content of our courses. Kind of like building the ship while we sail. This is true not only because teachers are hired to teach content (aka 5th grade or 7th grade ELA, etc.) and if we don’t, we won’t have a job. It is also true because student development of noncognitive factors is stronger when they see them modeled while they get to practice employing them within the context of the course. 

Skills Woven Into Each Lesson

For example, a high school math teacher could design a wonderful lesson about the importance of goal setting. She could embed research that shows the impact of setting goals. She could even include actual examples from her life. Her lesson might be engaging and entertaining and students would learn about the importance of goal setting. This pales in comparison to the student experience of actually setting goals in her class. Even if students don’t know all that much about goal setting. Even if it is a bit messy at first and off topic. It is more important that each individual is encouraged to articulate their goal and practice creating a plan of action to achieve it. One student’s aim is very different when compared to another. Once students’ goal, and their gameplan, are articulated, together with their teacher and classmates, each individual can practice collecting evidence to assess whether or not their aim is making them more successful. The key is that this is all happening while, not separate from, learning math. We must couple the teaching of content and skills as they are not mutually exclusive.  

A Noncognitive Budget? 

Perhaps the reason we don’t invest in the development of skills and habits is because, when they are taught effectively, they are “part” of each lesson. Historically we have assumed students will pick them up along their k12 journey, but we know that is no longer the case. I don’t have the answer, but I believe we would focus more on the foundations for learning, the development of noncognitive factors, if funding was devoted explicitly for the task. My hunch is that we would think differently about this work if there was an “executive functions” or “noncognitive skills” budget. If there were, I can imagine a growing body of resources and strategies to empower educators to successfully teach and model these factors. I can envision assessments to measure progress and hold teachers accountable for their development. In the same way that our industry evolved beyond the “sit and get” or didactic lecture style of teaching, if we had a noncognitive budget, gone would be the days of focusing on content alone. Educators would build a solid foundation for learning as they delivered each lesson. 

What do you think? Should this budget exist alongside the technology, textbooks, and testing budgets? How would things change for students? For teachers? For parents? For workforce development? I am really curious to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment! 

Be well,

Mitch

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