Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom held that cognitive ability displayed by mastery of core academic subjects paved the way to success in school, career, and life. Today, we know better. Success comes when cognitive skills work in tandem with so-called soft skills like self-control, persistence, social awareness, relationship development, and self-awareness. Practitioners and researchers typically frame their discussions of these characteristics around either social and emotional skills, or academic attitudes and behaviors. Each charts a separate path of inquiry and classroom practice. Yet they share a common destination: developing students whose mastery of noncognitive skills, strategies, attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors enhances their academic and life success. We call such students “effective learners.”
Leaders in the broad field of noncognitive learning not only share this common goal, but they feel it with an uncommon sense of urgency. Only three-quarters of US students who start high school earn a diploma. And only 25 percent of those meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. Incorporating the dropout rate, the percentage of students who leave high school ready for college-level challenges falls to just 19 percent. 1
In their quest to do better, educators typically focus on improving their skills at teaching core subjects, such as reading, math, and science. But research shows that students who develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and academic mindsets (for example, a belief that one’s abilities can improve with effort) do better in school. (See “What’s an Effective Learner” at the end of the article.) Yet, the potential for schools to foster more effective learners has not been developed to any significant scale—especially for the students from low-income districts who would benefit the most.
We are at a moment in time when that could change. The quest for scaling up noncognitive learning has inspired researchers and educators to embark on a range of initiatives. Thirty-seven leaders of several of the more prominent organizations leading this work, including the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Character Lab, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and New Teacher Center recently gathered at Bridgespan in Boston for a daylong convening to discuss the current and future direction of their work, and look for ways to work more closely together.2
These field leaders work against an educational backdrop in which the stakes have never been higher. Forty-two states are moving forward with implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which require students to master more challenging math and language arts/literacy content. At the same time, a number of states have embarked on improving teacher effectiveness—often measured by student learning gains.
If the pressure to improve student outcomes has never been greater, the prospects for funders to help scale noncognitive competencies across school districts—in school and after school—have never been brighter. Four such promising initiatives have zeroed in on the barriers to progress and advanced two priorities to overcome them: integrating SEL and the development of academic mindsets into teaching practice, and acknowledging that before educators can help students develop as effective learners they need support to change their own beliefs and mindsets.
New Efforts to Expand Noncognitive Development
Pioneering efforts by members of the convening to expand noncognitive development fall into four broad categories: collaborations between researchers and teachers; professional development for teachers; systemic reforms in school districts; and complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time.3 Some initiatives are primarily in service of developing students’ social and emotional competence, while others aim to build academic mindsets and behaviors such as the belief that failure can lead to improved learning. For educators, the lines between these two parallel strands of exploration often blur as they focus on the desired result—more successful students.
Collaborations between researchers and teachers | One promising path to scale up effective learning targets students’ attitudes and beliefs regarding school and learning. A growing number of researchers and teachers are collaborating to identify exactly what can help students develop an “academic mindset,” characterized by the persistence needed to participate in class, complete homework, and study. Many evidence-based SEL programs were developed through a similar collaborative approach. Such collaborations are a way for researchers to break free of university-based settings, where most academic mindset research has been conducted. Researchers have found that school teachers are eager to contribute their knowledge to advance innovation in the field, enabling them to become a source for the best (and perhaps most scalable) ideas grounded in the work they do every day. These classroom-based research initiatives often include multiple cycles of testing and feedback with an emphasis on rapid learning and improvement. The 8th/9th Teacher Network (8/9TN) and Character Lab, cofounded by MacArthur Genius award winner Angela Duckworth, Dave Levin, cofounder of the KIPP Charter Public Schools, and Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, provide examples of this approach.
The 8/9TN initiative in Chicago represents a partnership between researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) and 35 eighth- and ninth-grade teachers across seven Chicago public schools. The 8/9TN project grew out of CCSR’s work on noncognitive skill development and increasing recognition that teachers need actionable strategies to develop students’ academic mindsets. To that end, teachers work together, with input and support from researchers, to identify and develop practices that may be suitable for other schools to adopt.
Character Lab strives to develop evidence-based teaching tools and practices that can be easily and effectively integrated into the school day—a key to scaling up. For example, a mental strategy to boost students’ successful pursuit of goals helped fifth graders in a low-income New York City middle school move up half a standard deviation on their academic performance in one semester. Character Lab aims to help teachers weave this kind of exercise more systematically into their lesson plans and daily interactions with students.
Professional development for teachers | A second promising effort aims to upgrade the training programs teachers routinely enroll in. Many school districts partner with professional development providers to deliver in-service teacher training. Some of these providers serve multiple districts across many states and reach thousands of teachers each year. Given their reach, these providers can play an important role in helping to embed the development of noncognitive skills into the daily practice of thousands more teachers. By incorporating noncognitive competencies into their training programs, providers set a higher standard for other professional development organizations to follow.
The New Teacher Center (NTC), for example, considers SEL and academic mindsets as integral to its training programs. The center provides coaching and professional development, in person and online, to first-year teachers in more than two dozen school districts across the country. This year some 7,000 NTC mentor teachers will work with more than 26,000 new teachers who instruct an estimated 1.6 million students. NTC’s Mentor Academy, for example, has integrated SEL development with its guides for implementing the Common Core. “Teachers need to have these competencies front and center the minute they come into teaching,” says NTC CEO Ellen Moir. To complement its training and mentorship programs, NTC is building an online site with a set of tools and resources, including observation guides and assessment rubrics, focused on SEL and academic behaviors.
Systemic reforms in school districts | A third effort focuses on helping school districts integrate noncognitive competencies into district-level policies and practices, extending to every classroom. The Collaborating Districts Initiative, launched by CASEL in 2011, involves eight school districts striving to move beyond the programmatic and often modular focus of most SEL efforts. Rather than teach SEL as a separate classroom exercise once a week, for example, the initiative seeks to embed SEL into teachers’ daily work with students. That means adopting SEL learning standards and assessments, designing professional development programs for teachers, and integrating SEL with existing district initiatives—such as the Common Core. CASEL hopes the collaborating districts initiative will provide successful models that other school districts will follow. Two of the districts involved—Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn.—illustrate somewhat different routes to achieving the same goals.
In Austin, SEL Director Sherrie Raven has led the school district’s initiative with a three-pronged strategy: teaching SEL to elementary school students using the evidence-based Second Step program;4 embedding SEL in curriculum at all grade levels; and integrating SEL throughout the school day from the classroom to the cafeteria.
Austin hired 14 coaches to work with teachers on incorporating SEL into their daily activities. “The most critical thing for success has been the involvement of SEL coaches,” says Raven. “These coaches keep SEL at the forefront for principals and teachers, and they are building administrators’ and teachers’ capacity to sustain SEL implementation efforts over time.” Among their many activities in schools, coaches reinforce a common language for SEL competencies, work with principals to determine how to integrate SEL into school culture, and partner with teachers individually and in groups to identify what works and how to better support SEL throughout the school day.
In Nashville, the school system chose not to hire SEL coaches, says Kyla Krengel, the district’s SEL director. Rather, the district tapped its academic and instructional specialists to provide SEL support for teachers and administrators. The district is also working to embed SEL into existing programs and initiatives, including its project-based learning initiative in which students explore real-world problems and do a significant amount of individual exploration as well as group work. Project-based learning efforts began in high schools and will be rolled out in Nashville’s elementary and middle schools as well. Nashville’s academic specialists also help to integrate SEL support with the training teachers receive for implementing the Common Core. The district plans to review its teacher evaluation framework, seeking to identify links between teacher effectiveness and their SEL competencies.
Complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time | The fourth effort involves after-school and expanded-learning time initiatives. Several of these programs already build noncognitive development into interactions with students. There are increasing examples of programs that work more closely with the schools where they are housed to ensure that students experience the same support for skill and behavior development during school as they experience after school.
WINGS for Kids, for example, is an after-school program teaching kids how to behave well, make good decisions, and build healthy relationships. Students participate for three hours each day throughout the school year. The staff typically spends the first hour providing direct SEL instruction, and then reinforces these lessons with teachable moments over the next two hours as students complete their homework and engage in enrichment activities.5 WINGS also works to bridge the gap between students’ in-school and after-school experiences. Program directors collaborate with school administrators and teachers to ensure that students in school are exposed to the same SEL concepts encountered in WINGS. The WINGS staff and teachers also assess students’ SEL competencies with a series of behavior rating scales. This allows the WINGS staff and school’s teachers to develop joint plans for providing additional supports as needed to students who may be struggling with specific concepts.
An increasing number of schools are also using expanded-learning time as a venue for developing effective learning behaviors. Through its ExpandED Schools initiative, The AfterSchool Corporation (TASC) has developed a survey to help teachers and expanded-learning time educators measure students’ academic “habits of mind.” TASC then collaborates with instructional teams at schools to create action plans to help students become effective learners. Citizen Schools is another leading expanded-learning organization that provides low-income middle school students with hands-on, after-school apprenticeships focusing on social and emotional skill development. The apprenticeships emphasize 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, data analysis, advanced literacy.
What’s Preventing Greater Scale?
While nascent, these four initiatives show promise for charting multiple ways educators—and entire school districts—can help students develop noncognitive skills, attitudes, and mindsets. However, those involved in advancing the noncognitive field realize that their efforts touch only a small number of students. Four barriers impede scaling up to a larger number of students.
District agenda overload | Administrators and teachers are weary from coping with multiple competing priorities, initiatives, and programs. Few districts have escaped deep budget cuts in recent years, eliminating teaching positions and long-standing programs. Many schools face high teacher and leadership turnover. Superintendents and school boards often fail to involve teachers in decisions that affect classroom practice. In this context, any new effort to develop students’ noncognitive capabilities may come across as just another district initiative when there’s simply no room to squeeze in another well-meaning program.
Lack of consistently positive school environments | Students need to experience consistent support throughout the school day to develop the SEL skills and academic behaviors that characterize effective learning. It takes a supportive environment for these skills and behaviors to translate to actual learning outcomes. Conversely, classrooms with negative environments “stifle perseverance and undermine academic behaviors, which results in poor academic performance,” concludes a Consortium on Chicago School Research report.6 Creating the right classroom environment starts at the top with district and school leaders who make noncognitive factors a system-wide priority. And it extends to every adult who is interacting with students throughout the school day. Such consistency is hard to find in any school, much less an entire school district.
Lack of adequate preparation for educators | Educators need to understand and be able to model the attitudes and behaviors they endeavor to instill in their students. Unfortunately, most haven’t been trained to put noncognitive factors at the forefront of their work, and supportive professional development opportunities are scarce. At the top of the list of behaviors educators need to model are a growth mindset—believing that their own and their students’ abilities are not fixed but can be developed through dedication and hard work—and a sense of self-efficacy—believing in their own and their students’ ability to complete tasks and reach goals. These are building blocks for student success because they reflect a fundamental belief that effort produces results.7 Educators also need building blocks to develop trusting relationships with their students, including learning how to show empathy and respect. This implies significant changes for teaching training and coaching, which today largely focuses on pedagogy and classroom management.
Inadequate measurement | Assessment remains a huge challenge for the field, as evidenced by the questions yet unanswered. How exactly do you measure development of noncognitive factors? How do those measures change with students’ age? Are some interventions more effective than others? Participants at the convening viewed this lack of clarity around measurement as a serious obstacle to field advancement, both in terms of progressing research to develop practical classroom practices and of attracting funders to support continued research. “This community needs to have a set of metrics that show SEL and other noncognitive skills are foundational to student success,” says Moir. “We’re never going to get into funders’ portfolios unless we build a common language to measure success.”
Priorities for Moving Forward
Moir’s plea for a “common” way forward resonates with our findings. Commonality, in fact, has emerged as a unifying theme in a field where groups have worked in isolation. Once steeped in their own specialized pursuits, SEL advocates, academic mindset advocates, after-school and professional development practitioners, and reform-minded funders have begun to forge a unified voice around two goals critical to pushing aside barriers to the field’s advancement and much greater scale: reorienting the field from replicating programs to integrating noncognitive development into teaching practice; and acknowledging that educators need support to develop their own noncognitive skills.
By focusing on these two goals, noncognitive field leaders hope to go farther faster, making what they learn available for application on a far greater scale. Agreement on priorities like these also will help draw attention and build momentum for the pioneering efforts already underway. Integrating noncognitive factors into teaching practice and teacher preparation are common elements of all the initiatives led by participants in the convening.
Shift from replication of programs to integration of practices into daily interactions with students | Over the past two decades, dozens of SEL instructional programs have been developed for all ages. They aim to help students learn skills such as conflict resolution, decision making, self-control, teamwork, and relationship building. Many of these programs are taught as an add-on, with a designated time slot one or more days a week. Going forward, advocates want to see SEL and academic behaviors become integral to the student experience, and they want to achieve this shift on a scale that reaches millions of students.
School districts hold the key, especially the large, urban districts that educate the vast majority of students. They provide a platform for effective learning to become an integrated part of students’ daily interactions. But first, districts need to figure out how to systemically build and embed the capacity and supports to do this well. As is the case with CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative, this could mean integrating SEL into the district’s budget, professional development, organizational structure, communications, school supports, and central office functions and priorities.
In addition, districts have to make change management a priority to help teachers and administrators navigate the often unfamiliar terrain associated with supporting students to become effective learners. Austin and Nashville have learned a lot about what district-wide change management efforts entail. They see the importance of having dedicated district capacity to lead the charge and build buy-in among teachers. In both districts, coaches work to steer the needed change in the right direction. And as the 8/9TN initiative discovered in Chicago, building educators’ understanding of SEL and noncognitive development can be a prerequisite to gaining their engagement and ownership over development of their students as effective learners.
Professional development providers also have an important role to play by helping teachers learn the skills needed to help students become effective learners. Many of these providers, like NTC, work with thousands of teachers across multiple states. Similarly, expanded-learning time initiatives (Citizen Schools, ExpandED Schools) and after-school programs that work with schools (WINGS) are eager to align their ongoing SEL and noncognitive efforts with the work of teachers during the regular school day.
Help educators change their own beliefs and mindsets| Ongoing initiatives in the field have brought into sharper focus the need to devote much more attention to educators’ beliefs and mindsets, and the development of their own noncognitive competencies. It’s not just that educators feel unfamiliar with noncognitive skills and unprepared to teach them. In many cases, they also need to change long-held beliefs in their own and their students’ capacity to learn—such as embracing the power of a growth mindset and self-efficacy. The need to focus attention and support on educators came as a surprise, but it’s an insight central to advancement of the field. Students can’t develop as effective learners unless their teachers understand, model, and believe in the skills and behaviors they seek to teach.
This was an early lesson for researchers and teachers involved with the 8/9TN initiative in Chicago. Researchers quickly saw that many participating teachers did not believe they could impact students’ noncognitive development or that students could change in the ways described, which shifted the initiatives’ early focus to helping teachers develop needed behaviors and competencies. “We have spent a lot of time helping teachers to own the idea that they are a powerful force in students’ lives, and in the few hours they have with students each day, they can do a lot. We have been able to change a lot of people’s minds,” says Ann Szekely, director of the 8/9TN initiative. Teachers viewed this knowledge and changes to their behavior as the gateway to helping students develop as effective learners. “Much of our work in this last year has been as much or more around teacher mindsets and teacher self-efficacy, without which it will be impossible for teachers to effectively support noncognitive development in their kids,” says Camille Farrington, a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
The investment in teachers pays dividends in the classroom. A growing body of research indicates that schools and classrooms are more important in shaping students’ desired academic behaviors than the personal qualities they bring with them to school.8 Without the requisite mindsets, beliefs, and self-knowledge, teachers are less likely to create the kind of supportive classrooms that foster effective learning. Creating the right environment starts with grounding teachers more firmly in their own noncognitive skills, traits, strategies, and attitudes. Such training presents a growth opportunity for university teacher training programs and professional development providers.
Make no mistake. Behavioral change is hard to learn and even harder to sustain. But the efforts under way to help teachers learn and model new noncognitive skills and behaviors are essential for the field to grow. What’s learned from today’s efforts will point the way to further research and development on strategies that position educators to help their students develop as effective learners—strengthening their own effectiveness as educators along the way.
Off to a Good Start
By clarifying goals and priorities for moving forward, the field is sure to accelerate research and learning. But advancing the field will take more than bold new approaches. Field leaders also recognize the need for greater emphasis on clear standards and measures of noncognitive factors—for teachers and students—that lead to greater student success, not only to calibrate learning today, but also to anchor the next wave of research around “what works.” It’s a point made by a recent Consortium on Chicago School Research report: “While some very interesting and promising work has emerged recently, the state of research evidence, and the development of practice models still lag far behind the high level of interest.”9
Field leaders also highlight the need for a coordinated learning agenda and more collaboration across different areas of research and exploration. Much remains to be learned about how best to help educators develop the self-knowledge they need to help their students become effective learners, and how to change educators’ daily interactions with students to incorporate new approaches. And it’s not clear which skills and behaviors—of the many being studied—make the most difference in improving student academic performance.
Ongoing efforts in the field represent a good start to answering these questions. With a clear fix on priorities and more coordination among field leaders, education funders increasingly may find noncognitive development an attractive arena for investment with the potential for significant impact—local, state, and national.
The accumulating body of knowledge gives rise to a growing sense of optimism that we can do better, much better, in preparing students for success in school and beyond. And those who stand to benefit the most are the students in low-income schools for whom success remains more dream than reality.
What’s an Effective Learner?
It’s a relatively new concept borne of recent research establishing the critical importance of noncognitive skills and behaviors to student success in school and beyond. While we use the word “noncognitive,” we recognize that the field does not yet have a common language for this set of competencies. Therefore, we focus on the outcome—effective learning—and define “effective learners” as students who develop a set of qualities that includes self-control, persistence, social awareness, relationship skills, curiosity, resilience, and self-confidence. Research shows that such skills are the defining factors that set high school and college graduates apart from those who drop out at either level. The research that has introduced the importance of these qualities into mainstream conversation falls into two distinct but overlapping arenas: social and emotional learning (SEL), and academic attitudes and behaviors.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the leading proponent of SEL. Its mission is to make SEL an integral part of education from kindergarten through high school. CASEL has identified five interrelated social and emotional competencies that define SEL:
- Self-awareness | The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior.
- Self-management | The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations.
- Social awareness | The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
- Relationship skills | The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.
- Responsible decision making | The ability to make decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.
A range of studies confirm that well-designed and well-executed SEL programs help students develop a greater attachment to school, diminish risky behavior, and improve academic performance. The most cited study is a 2011 analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs involving over 270,000 K–12 students. It found that many SEL programs significantly improved students’ social and emotional skills, and academic performance improved by 11 percentile points among students in 33 programs that measured impact on achievement.1
The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) is a leading proponent of enhancing students’ academic attitudes and behaviors to boost performance. In 2012, CCSR published an influential paper that described five factors that significantly influence student academic performance as well as success in life: academic behaviors (going to class, doing homework), academic perseverance (grit, tenacity, self-discipline), academic mindsets (e.g., believing that abilities are not fixed but develop through hard work), learning strategies (study skills, self-regulated learning), and social skills (interpersonal skills, empathy, cooperation).
CCSR concluded that “building students’ academic mindsets and teaching them appropriate learning strategies are the best ways to improve academic behaviors and perseverance, which leads to better grades.” 2 Over the last decade, researchers such as Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck have identified discrete interventions that, when applied in a lab setting, can result in changes in students’ academic mindsets or attitudes. What the literature review highlighted, however, is the gap between what we know about the importance of these factors and how little we know about how teachers and other adults can help students develop them.
Across the two arenas highlighted above, there is common cause: to help many more students grow as effective learners. While the roots of these movements differ, we see potential for greater integration over time as many more educators seek to support their students in all the ways it takes to grow their hearts and minds.