A recent article by Paul Tough, focuses on how one can increase the non-cognitive skills of students. He shows, how, the evidence increasingly points, that we cannot ‘teach’ these skills, but by creating the right environmental conditions and via real-world interactions, these somehow develop.
These non-cognitive skills are skills like grit, resilience, self-control and perseverance; and these have been shown to have differential and significant impact, over and above cognitive factors, on academic performance and outcomes like the CGPA.
The article starts with documenting the well-known finding that (chronic) stress in early childhood is associated with worse outcomes later in life. It then goes on to document another finding, that irrespective of whether the early childhood is stressful (barring aside extreme adversity) or not, if the child-parent interaction is full of warmth and supportive and consistent, then it leads to development of positive non-cognitive skills like attention and concentration.
For children who grow up without significant experiences of adversity, the skill-development process leading up to kindergarten generally works the way it’s supposed to: Calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills. Just as early stress sends signals to the nervous system to maintain constant vigilance and prepare for a lifetime of trouble, early warmth and responsiveness send the opposite signals: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. These messages trigger adaptations in children’s brains that allow them to slow down and consider problems and decisions more carefully, to focus their attention for longer periods, and to more willingly trade immediate gratification for promises of long-term benefits.
Now, as per one conceptualization, its easy to draw a parallel between a child-parent relation and a employee-manager relation; many of us look at our bosses as parental authority figures and look towards them for direction and guidance. If we extend the analogy, its easy to see why the supportive, warm, caring and consistent behavior of managers towards their employee may be an important variable that results in the employees exhibiting behaviors that utilizes and is focused around using non-cognitive skills.
Also important is the emotional intelligence of the manager- how self-aware the manager is and how capable of self-regulation he or she is. The analogy with parent-child emotional interaction and modelling is presented below:
A second crucial role that parents play early on is as external regulators of their children’s stress. When parents behave harshly or unpredictably—especially at moments when their children are upset—the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations. By contrast, when a child’s parents respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones.
So, if one wants to have employees that can focus, self-regulate, do not cut corners in service of short term goals and are creative/ innovative, then along with some behavioral raining in these aspects, a fruitful avenue would be focusing on the EI and attitudes of their managers so that they act in right way towards their employees, and create the right conditions for development and display of non-cognitive skills.
The article then goes on to discuss how neither punishments nor incentives work to decrease the behavior problems or to increase the academic outcomes. Translated to the workplace, carrots and sticks don’t work, neither for controlling dis-engagement nor for increasing performance. One striking indictment of incentives follows:
And yet in almost every case, Fryer’s incentive programs have had no effect. From 2007 to 2009, Fryer distributed a total of $9.4 million in cash incentives to 27,000 students, to promote book reading in Dallas, to raise test scores in New York, and to improve course grades in Chicago —all with no effect. “The impact of financial incentives on student achievement,” Fryer reported, “is statistically 0 in each city.” In the 2010–11 school year, he gave cash incentives to fifth-grade students in 25 low-performing public schools in Houston, and to their parents and teachers, with the intent of increasing the time they spent on math homework and improving their scores on standardized math tests. The students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn’t changed at all. When Fryer looked at their reading scores, he found that they actually went down.
What does work instead, is creating the conditions for tapping into intrinsic motivation: and one way to do so is by providing employees/ students a sense of autonomy, mastery experiences and a sense of belonging/ relatedness. This is based in the rich literature around self-determination theory by Deci and Ryan.
But how does this relate to the non-cognitive abilities? In educational settings, Jackson, an economist, tried to measure the non-cognitive ability of students and also correlate to teacher’s effectiveness and came up with striking insights.
Jackson had access to students’ scores on the statewide standardized test, and he used that as a rough measure of their cognitive ability. This is the number that education officials generally look at when trying to assess teachers’ impact. But then Jackson did something new. He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude way, how engaged students were in school—whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this simple noncognitive proxy was, remarkably, a better predictor than students’ test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.
An analogy to workplace would be productivity as the cognitive skills; and absenteeism, layoffs, on-time promotions and performance ratings as a proxy measure for non-cognitive abilities. And what did he find?
Jackson’s proxy measure allowed him to do some intriguing analysis of teachers’ effectiveness. He subjected every ninth-grade English and algebra teacher in North Carolina to what economists call a value-added assessment. First he calculated whether and how being a student in a particular teacher’s class affected that student’s standardized-test score. Then, separately, he calculated the effect that teachers had on their students’ noncognitive proxy measure: on their attendance, suspensions, timely progression from one grade to the next, and overall GPA.
Jackson found that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year. These are the teachers, in every teacher-evaluation system in the country, who are the most valued and most rewarded. But he also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up—not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too.
Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much; in every school, it seemed, there were certain teachers who were especially good at developing cognitive skills in their students and other teachers who excelled at developing noncognitive skills. But the teachers in the second cohort were not being rewarded for their success with their students—indeed, it seemed likely that no one but Jackson even realized that they were successful. And yet those teachers, according to Jackson’s calculations, were doing more to get their students to college and raise their future wages than were the much-celebrated teachers who boosted students’ test scores.
Now this is huge! It correlates with the parallel claim I have been making that most of the managers are basically either task-oriented or people-oriented. Those who are task oriented, are like the teachers who can increase the cognitive ability of students, and are able to drive productivity in their teams; the other set of managers, who are more people-oriented, are like teachers that create the conditions that lead to more non-cognitive abilities in their students, and are able to truly engage employees and bring out their best.
And this they do by creating the right conditions:
The environment those teachers created in the classroom, and the messages that environment conveyed, motivated students to start making better decisions—to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day. And those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways. Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call “skills” in this case are really just new ways of thinking about the world or about themselves—a new set of attitudes or beliefs that somehow unleash a new way of behaving.
And what are these new set of attitudes or beliefs:
Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:
1. I belong in this academic community.
2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
3. I can succeed at this.
4. This work has value for me.
If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington concludes, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.
The four factors are related to belongingness (where managers can play a big role), mastery experiences and growth opportunities, for creating self-efficacy and feelings of competence(again under manager’s control); and ensuring the work is purposeful and not meaningless (where again managers can play a big role).
Its about time, managers lived up-to their responsibilities, and organizations reward the people-oriented managers too, who are creating the conditions for their employees to grow and flourish. The non-cognitive skills of employees can be developed but via the managers and hence its important to create the right culture where people oriented managers are also rewarded and recognized.