Wednesday, December 21, 2011

cognitive vs. noncognitive part 2...

Materials published by ETS, Educational Testing Services offhandedly suggesting a difference between cognitive and noncognitive skills is damning in that it tells of the distinct bias they sustain thus disparaging the value of the skilled trades, engineering, hands-on learning, and all those components of American education that don't lend themselves to easy measurement on standardized tests. To portray only those skills they measure on their tests as cognitive, while describing those more difficult to measure as noncognitive, they display their own ignorance and indifference to what it takes to craft beautiful and useful objects or to participate in a myriad of other non-academic skilled professions. You can read part one, yesterday's post here. I am uncertain what to do here. I feel like Dorothy's dog Toto barking at the foot of the Wizard. ETS is too big for one man, a woodworker in Arkansas to challenge for their arrogance. So rising up against the testing industry by myself is fool hardy at best. But to throw around terms like cognitive and noncognitive thus disparaging the actual cognition required in the mastery of not so easily measured skills is an abomination if not a crime against intelligent humanity. They should be taking every possible step to mitigate the harm they do.

Is music noncognitive? Is dance noncognitive? Is woodworking noncognitive? I would invite any of these ETS turkeybuzzards to join me for just one day in the woodshop. I (with the help of their own hands) could teach them a few things about cognition.

Make, fix and create...


  1. I think you are taking umbrage over the term noncognitive when you shouldn't be. In fact I think if you went back and reread the report you would find that they agree with you and in fact draw some of the same conclusions about the limitations of standardized testing. Did you see the part where they say "If the problem of self-ratings is fakability, then why not use ratings by others, such as teachers or advisors? After all, isn’t this what a letter of recommendation is?" They have noticed that there are critical skills and factors in determining success that can't be measured on a standardized test taken by an individual and are supporting the idea of gathering feedback (in a standard fashion) from the folks with direct knowledge of the student. Don't you agree with this?

    Did you see the footnote "The term noncognitive, although a misnomer, is widely used in psychology and measurement. Other relevant terms are nonacademic, socioaffective, affectivemotivational, and personality"? And it is relative to cognitive which is defined as "based on or capable of being reduced to empirical factual knowledge". In other words they are simply saying a noncognitive skill is one that can't be easily reduced to empirical data. What is the optimal amount of persistence or loyalty, and who would define that standard? Are you arguing these skills can be reduced to simple empirical data?

    And yes I would consider dance (and the other skills you listed) as noncognitive. This is hardly being dismissive of those skills. In fact I would say it is the opposite. There is a huge difference between knowing what a pirouette is and actually being able to perform one. Cognitive skills and abilities are limited to mental processes. Once you move beyond the abstract into application that is a new skill set that is above and beyond the simple cognitive skills. As another example knowing which notes on a sheet of music corresponds to which notes on the piano would be a simple cognitive measure, but this would hardly make someone a musician. Once you get into the realm of determining what makes a musician good then more nonobjective measures come into play (like taste) and multiple valid interpretations of music would exist.

    Perhaps since it is a misnomer you could suggest a term to them that wouldn't hurt your feelings? If they said they wanted to measure socioaffective traits would that be more to your liking?

  2. Doug, another term that I hear used all the time is "soft" skills. That is even worse than "noncognitive.". How crazy.


  3. UUupdater, thank you for your thoughtful response. There are some skills that are perhaps "purely cognitive" like remembering dates without a calendar, or doing fractions without pen or pencil, or being able to use or remember facts, or as in an IQ test arrange bits of data. And these things are easy to measure in standardized testing.

    If the standardized testing community agrees with me on the limitations of standardized testing, one would think that out of conscientious service to our children they would be taking greater steps to mitigate the harm done to our students and our educational system by our excessive reliance on standardized testing.

    If they were Doctors instead of PhDs they would vow to do no harm.

    One easy to take first measure would be to admit that music, dance, wood working, skilled trades of all kinds that the the Academic community too soon disparage are cognitive activities.

    I realize my language in last evening's post may have been challenging to the status quo, but the assumption within the psychological community and the multi-billion dollar testing that those things that can be easily measured are cognitive and those things that cannot are not is absurd. I realize that the position taken in the paper I attached is favorable to mine, that a wider view should be taken toward the multiple qualities that schools should consider in advancement of students, and that should be considered in student success.

    But the fact is that the testing industry is far too domineering of American education and should come to terms with its own subtly expressed bias against forms of intelligence it cannot so easily measure.

    So what should we call those forms of cognition that are easy to measure... easy to measure would be honest.

  4. Blogger Doug Stowe said...

    UUupdater, the ETS report lumps noncognitive "qualities" with noncognitive skills. A noncognitive quality can be something like how far a student has to drive or is willing to go to get to school.

    They are welcome to use the term "noncognitive quality" referring to circumstances outside the cognitive realm til the cows come home as far as I'm concerned as long as they don't use that term with regard to skill, which is never noncognitive in that it involves observation, reflection and judgment. And I really don't think that you've a leg to stand on in suggesting that music and dance might be reasonably considered noncognitive activities.

    Sorry about that... but thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

  5. JD,
    I would think the academic skills would be the soft ones or for softies. Or maybe they've decided hard skills go with soft hands and hard hands with soft skills. In any case, the disparagement of hard to measure skills as noncognitive is indicative of the industry and psychological field having given little thought to the value of non-academic intelligence.

  6. Doug, no offense taken. It just reminds me of the person I talked to who was very upset because the tomato he purchased was not "inorganic material" and "people" seemed to be under the impression it was made of plastic or something. Of course no one was actually calling his food inorganic, they were just telling him that it was "not 'Organic' produce" which refers to produce grown in specific conditions.

    Cognitive skills are "limited to mental processing of information" and I happen to think that dance, music, etc. are not limited to mental processing of information, and thus noncognitive. You can interpret this to be me saying it is a mindless activity, but far from challenging the status quo this seems to just come across as being silly or confused. I don't think the implication is that these skills are midless any more than i think calling food not organic implies that it is not of organic origin.

  7. UUupdater, I think it is interesting that students are allowed to use pencils and calculators in the SAT, but as Einstein said, his pencil and he were more clever than he alone.

    So is there any such thing as cognitive skill that is solely "limited to mental processing of information" ?

    Also, I think that if they think noncognitive is a misnomer, they should be working with descriptive terms that are more fully cognizant of the issues involved.

  8. Spelling, most math (but things like fingers and pencils can certainly make things easier), rhyming, similes, antonyms, synonyms, sorting, alphabetizing, etc... how many examples did you want?

    As a computer programmer these types of skills are precisely the sorts of processes that are simple to automate, and so I put people that use these skills out of work. Why learn to spell when there is a spell checker? Why learn to add when there are calculators? (Hopefully it is obvious these are rhetorical questions) The point is why should we put an emphasis in education on the very skills that are most likely to be worthless for future workers?

    Math should focus on the concepts and application, not simple regurgitation of data. Students should read more books, and spend less time memorizing word lists. The creative and applied aspects which are more difficult to empirically observe are the more critical of the skill sets. The simpler it is to form an empirical analysis, the less useful it will be in the future.

    Agreed on the misnomer, not sure I have a better term, but think it would be good if they had one.

    Doug, you are spot on that we need more creativity in schools. I wouldn't waste so much energy on semantics.

  9. UUupdater, it truly irks me that they would deliberately use a misnomer when it perpetuates a misunderstanding about intelligence. Their footnote tells that it was not used in complete ignorance of its effect.

    This issue may be a matter of semantics, but given the power we give the testing industry in our nation's schools, they SHOULD be watching their p's and q's.