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Teaching students to become learners

New York Teacher
Catalina Fortino, VP for education

Today there is a very good chance you will say to a student something like: “Think about how you will go about solving the math problem before you begin to answer the questions.”

Or — “I know you can do it. Last time you were stuck in the same place you came up with a way to work it through. Remember what you did.”

Or — “You reorganized your ideas and worked through many drafts of your writing and ended up with a more concise and persuasive piece to get your point across. It took longer, but you stayed with it and your essay shows your efforts.”

Like Molière’s Monsieur Jordan, who discovers he’s been speaking prose with or without knowing it, you may not realize that what you’re doing is contributing to student academic learning by helping to develop noncognitive skills — such as self-confidence, perseverance, grit and persistence — that contribute to student success.

For those of us who may have a problem with the term noncognitive, as if these are skills that require no thought, let me offer David Conley’s reframing of the term, which is that these skills could more accurately be called meta-cognitive learning skills. After all, academic and nonacademic abilities interact in critical ways to create optimal learning. A student who exercises his social skills in dealing constructively with a peer conflict is certainly using his intelligence.

Teachers always think about how to support students in ways that go beyond the imparting of academic or cognitive knowledge. Knowing that students approach new skills and topics in various ways, teachers balance the teaching of subject matter embedded in a set of standards with teaching students to become learners.

With the recent national focus on setting high standards and giving rigorous course work, emerging research is indicating that concomitant to these is the need to focus on a range of academic behaviors, attitudes and strategies that are critical to success in school and in later life.

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research is one of the leading voices on the vital role that teachers play in helping students move from passive recipients of academic content to active learners who can persist in difficult tasks and apply with self-confidence a set of strategies to master challenging and complex subject matter. Their review of the emerging research points to how important this is for students as they move from the middle grades to high school, and how it becomes important again in the transition to college.

The recognition of the value of noncognitive skills isn’t based on just theory. In a recent Teacher to Teacher column in New York Teacher, high school math teacher Elizabeth Jaffe (it appears math teachers are in the vanguard of the noncognitive-skills brigade) described the disconnect between the grit her students show by managing to make it to school despite “almost insurmountable obstacles” and their tendency to give up when faced with a difficult algebra problem.

Jaffe works very deliberately to foster grit in her students’ academic performance. She listens, gives the students choices to showcase their academic and behavioral strengths and openly offers them challenges, not for a higher mark but for the intrinsic reward that comes from meeting a challenge. In this way, she helps her students to recognize and consciously use their noncognitive skills.

The whole field of research on noncognitive skills is still relatively new, but the skills are not. Teachers have always motivated students to work through a task and see it to completion or have taken the time to listen to students describe the challenges they face or the hopes they have for their future. It is encouraging to see that there is now an emerging body of research recognizing that this aspect of teaching is critical to helping students succeed academically, as is setting high standards and teaching with a rigorous curriculum.

While we may not necessarily be able to measure noncognitive skills, we know these learning skills count. As noted social philosopher Eric Hoffer has stated, “In times of change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

By bringing to the forefront of our teaching an attention to noncognitive behaviors as well as standards and content knowledge, we prepare our students to become lifelong learners with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a highly competitive global society.

Related Topics: VPerspective, Pedagogy