Wednesday, December 21, 2011

cognitive vs. noncognitive...

I'm following up on yesterday's post. Evidently in the psych world, the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive, as absurd as it may seem is a real one (to them). Google "noncognitive" and see what I mean. You will find it referenced seriously in many scholarly articles all over the place as in this paper at MIT, or the following from ETS, the world's foremost testing service:
ETS is known for its work on the SAT®, Graduate Record Examinations® (GRE®), National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Praxis SeriesTM, and other tests of knowledge and cognitive ability.

But does ETS have assessments of noncognitive qualities — persistence, dependability, motivation, the ability to work with others, intercultural sensitivity? Do these matter? Do they affect success in school or in the workplace?

Are Noncognitive Skills Important?

They apparently are important in industry. Employers report valuing job stability and dependability, and they often use noncognitive assessments in employee hiring decisions, for good reason. Meta-analyses (analyses of the combined results from multiple studies) have shown that noncognitive measures provide a 20% improvement over cognitive ability measures in predicting training success and job performance(Schmidt & Hunter, 1998).
You can download the ETS pdf here. It is rife with references to noncognitive skill. The interesting thing to me of course is the absurdity. First, what is skill and how can it be noncognitive? How in the world did they arrive at the conclusion that skills other than reading and math are not demanding of congnitive engagement? Are these skills for the mindless or what? Development of skill, even those that cannot be so easily measured as those in math or reading, require feedback, observation and reflection which are clearly cognitive activities unless you've been trapped in an academic or institutional environment so long as to have lost touch.

It is completely amazing to me that we have turned American education over to the testing industry, and yet we can see so clearly that they are fundamentally flawed, misunderstanding skill and expressing academic bias against it... unless that skill is one of filling out bubbles in number 2 pencil.

Some things like reading and math skills are easy to measure. There are skills and qualities of character that are not so easy to chart. But to presume one set to be cognitive and the other not, is arrogance of the worst kind. And that arrogance has been damaging to American education. It seems that those difficult to measure skills of heart, and skills of hand that matter most to our children's futures have been assessed as having no value in American schooling. Take matters into your own hands.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Doug—
    I was re-reading a section of Matthew Crawford's _Shop Class as Soul Craft_ this morning and it came to me that this false distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive, an aspect of the broad cultural bias toward theoretical or "universal" knowledge vs. personal or tacit knowledge, is based on the economic pressure to commodify knowledge. As Crawford ably argues, the effort to remove knowledge from persons engaged in work and translate it into algorithms and rules of procedure is thought to be smart business. In the name of efficiency it makes individuals interchangeable and replaceable parts in the machine of the corporation. In other words, by attempting to make knowledge a commodity that can be bought and sold on markets, people become commodities. Because knowledge is always located in human experience, to extract it from people is simply inhumane.

  2. Have you read "you are not a gadget" by Jaron Lanier? It is not all that much fun to be part of a machine. But you have hit the nail right on the head.