How Non-Cognitive Variables Fit Into Today’s Schools

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By Michael Soguero and Sarah Bertucci

Michael-SogueroOne of the advantages of working at the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center is our good fortune to interact with so many different educational organizations. As a result, we sometimes see patterns or themes emerge among these disparate organizations that they can’t observe as single entities.

One of these themes we see emerging is the use of non-cognitive variables in such places as Albuquerque, Vermont or — on a national level — with the Big Picture Learning organization.

Sarah-Bertucci-eagle-rock2Before we get far into this, it’s important to note that terminology can be confusing. Whether in regional areas of work, specific organization decisions, or in the research literature, the term non-cognitive variable is sometimes known as meta-cognitive variables, interpersonal skills — and persistence and grit.

The norm for education has always been cognitive in nature, involving conscious mental activities such as memorization, rote learning and recitation. But to us, it seems intuitive that success in life — and what we hope for our students — is not just academic content knowledge.

There’s something more to the question, “What exactly is the purpose of school?” Take emotional intelligence, social skills and street smarts, for example. These are all elusive qualities that are challenging to name and measure, but most important in getting along in life.

Among our inspirations is Grant Wiggins’ March 2011 article A Diploma Worth Having, published in the ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) publication Educational Leadership. He wrote:

“Our belief in lockstep adherence to rigid curriculum requirements appears especially myopic and misguided if we look through the lens of the fundamental question, ‘How well does the high school curriculum prepare all students for their adult lives?’

And he notes that the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education thought this question was not only sensible but sorely needed — back in 1918!

That commission’s report — called Cardinal Principles of Secondary Educationsaid education should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers enabling students the ability to discover their place “and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends.” These principles were based on an understanding of the broad mission of schooling as enabling individuals to better themselves and society.

Specifically, they suggested the main objectives of education were health; command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); worthy home membership; vocation; citizenship; worthy use of leisure; and ethical character.

That objective, written long ago, appears to fit in perfectly with Eagle Rock’s own philosophical thinking. But who would have guessed that during our recent dealings with a number of schools across the nation, this notion of non-cognitive education theme would continue to evolve?

Consider this:

And while each of these places engaged the Professional Development Center for completely different purposes, we find it remarkable that a theme has emerged regarding the importance of schools supporting something far more than academics.

Here are some recent examples:

Big Picture South Burlington’s Gateway Process: This program wanted to support personal development in its students and found that using non-cognitive variables allowed them to use research-based categories that students could understand.

New Mexico Center for School Leadership: Our Professional Development Center is helping school leaders to look at the contours and landscape of the innovative work they are doing. Over a series of strategy sessions led by us, school leaders have shaped their vision for an “Educational Sweet Spot,” a place where students successfully deploy what they have learned through real life projects that engage both inter-personal and academic skill sets to creatively solve real-world problems.

Puget Sound Consortium: Our education renewal work in collaboration with the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation in Seattle, Wash., included introducing meta-cognitive variables (MCV) to a group of high school principals in the Seattle Area in June of this year. This was the third time we worked with the Consortium. For some principals this was an introduction to MCV’s and for others this work was a chance to dive deeper into ways to use MCV’s in their schools. Schools in attendance include Highline Big Picture, Summit Charter, Rainier Prep Charter, OBLS Charter, Life Prep Academy, Federal Way, Seattle Interagency Academy.

Eagle Rock School’s graduation requirements: Here at Eagle Rock, graduation is based on demonstrated success within five holistic expectations (very much associated with non-cognitive variables):

  1. Leadership for Justice
  2. Engaged Global Citizenship
  3. Expanding Knowledge Base
  4. Effective Communication
  5. Making Healthy Life Choices

Jeff Petty from Puget Sound Consortium summarized it best:

“As we ask ourselves, “What’s school for?” — given that information is ever expanding and widely available, the purpose of school is to help students become learners, and non-cognitive variables are currently the best possible descriptors of that. As a result, we should design schools around them.”

So tell us (using the Comment section below)… what is school for and what role do non-cognitive variables play where you teach or work?

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About the Authors:

Michael Soguero is the director of professional development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. There, he is primarily responsible for developing strategy that positively affects public education throughout the United States.

Sarah Bertucci is the professional development center associate at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo.

Comments (2)

  1. Andrew Frishman says:

    Michael and Sarah,

    I’m excited that you have helped to highlight this important and invaluable work. At Big Picture Learning we have been working hard to more explicitly elucidate Non-Cognitive Competencies in our work. We recently released a guide focusing on this entitled, “The Role of Noncognitive Skills for Student Success” –

    I also appreciated your references to Big Picture Learning Schools such at Big Picture South Burlington High School – and also the Big Picture Learning Initiative in the Pacific Northwest, the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation ( – your link above seems to be not working?)

    Finally, I feel that there are still unanswered questions about how “grit” and persistence fit into other Non-Cognitive Competencies. At Big Picture Learning, we had Angela Duckworth present at our last annual Leadership Conference, but I also was intrigued by Alfie Kohn’s critique back in April of 2014 –

    Excited to have the opportunity to continue to collaborate with you all in this burgeoning field,


    • Michael says:

      Andrew, Thanks for your comments. Our presentation today at Rowland Conference ( stands on the shoulders of much of BPL’s thoughtful work around non cognitive competencies. Thanks to all your good work.

      Alfie Kohn’s critique highlights some ways I think the research on grit and perseverance can be misused. It is a useful caution. However, I do believe that in the hands and minds of good progressive educators, the research can be well used to foster a growth mindset and the work that BPL values. That will be our message today as we present.

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