Insight

Grit, curiosity, optimism: What tests don’t measure

Elizabeth Spiegel, chess teacher at IS 318.In his book “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough writes about how Elizabeth Spiegel (above), chess teacher at IS 318 in Williamsburg, coaches her high-poverty middle schoolers to national chess championships with a relentless drive — which teaches her students how to persevere. The research has been out there for years: Students’ course grades are far better predictors of high school and college performance than standardized test scores, even SAT scores.

Why this is so is the subject of fascinating ongoing studies, but essentially what researchers believe is that grades capture more than a student’s content knowledge and academic achievements. A grade also reflects the less measurable qualities: work habits, motivation, social and emotional intelligence, and perseverance in the face of failure — life skills grouped as “noncognitive factors” in education research. In part, a teacher grades on these noncognitive strengths and weaknesses, and those predict lifetime outcomes, not just test scores.

What researchers are also finding is that these noncognitive skills, so essential for success, can be taught, or at least instilled. In fact, teachers who help students master their emotions, manage their time and stick with tough assignments can improve the chances of even the most at-risk students and lay the groundwork for academic success.

It probably won’t come as news to teachers that study skills and self-discipline are important to achievement. But the emphasis on noncognitive qualities upsets the applecart of the test-obsessed. It underscores the value of teachers to their students. It also opens the possibilities of redirecting even the most resistant students by changing mental habits and school cultures.

The value of school

Over a decade ago, University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman found that young people who do not graduate from high school but get a GED (a certificate of high school course completion) have lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher divorce rates and higher instances of drug use than their peers who graduated, even though they scored about the same on standard achievement tests.

Though Heckman did not explore the factors that made the difference, the current thinking is that the qualities a student needs to make it through high school, such as perseverance and “grit,” curiosity and optimism, are life-changing characteristics. Those who quit and just take the GED test have not developed these personal character attributes, or not to the same extent.

“The prevailing interpretation is that, in addition to measuring students’ content knowledge and core academic skills, grades also reflect the degree to which students have demonstrated a range of academic behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that are critical for success in school and in later life,” according to the authors of a June 2012 study “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners,” by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The consortium puts these noncognitive factors into a sort of flow chart, showing how “academic mindsets” — a feeling of belonging to an academic community, a belief that effort will result in achievement and some personal interest in the subject they are studying — gives students the “academic perseverance” they need to master something new. That perseverance in turn underpins “academic behaviors,” such as good study skills, regular attendance, social skills and the ability to examine one’s own performance, all of which lead to successful “academic performance.” Guiding students in handling challenge is what good instruction is about.

Managing stress and chess

Noncognitive skills are receiving attention outside the academic world as well. A popular new book by Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed,” shows that while good parenting can help children persevere, so can good teaching. He becomes interested in the “character education” that the KIPP charter schools instruct very deliberately with their “Sit Up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod and Track” mantra. But he sees some rigidity to it that concerns him. He turns his attention to shadowing a chess teacher at IS 318 in Williamsburg, Elizabeth Spiegel, who coaches her high-poverty middle schoolers to national chess championships with a relentless drive.

“She wanted to build up her students’ confidence, to make them believe in their own ability to overcome stronger rivals and master an impossibly complicated game,” he writes.

Like a tough athletic coach, Spiegel focuses on the moment where her students lose a game, showing them what they should have done, drilling into their failures, chastising them for not using better thinking skills. And they get better. And better.

Spiegel is heavily invested in her students’ success. She cares passionately, and that has a profound effect on at-risk kids. But in addition we see her teaching noncognitive skills. She does not brush mistakes under the rug or offer empty encouragement. Spiegel is demanding, zealous and “mean” (her own word). And her students learn to use their minds. Other good teachers have different styles, but they are equally demanding.

“Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age 8. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood,” Tough writes. And what the research shows quite conclusively is that those are the skills that get students through, and make them truly college- and career-ready.

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