Life Skills Are Not Frills


By Ellen Galinsky

I truly wish that people understood the literature on life skills. They are NOT non-cognitive, but rather pull together our INTELLECTUAL, social and emotional capacities for goal-directed problem solving. In the academic literature, they are called “cognitive control skills.”

These skills require intellect and are indeed cognitive skills as much as they’re social and emotional skills.

If we don’t get the language right, we risk seeing the focus on skills end up as an education flavor of the month.

Part of the problem may be all the hype that began to build a few years ago around the premise of Paul Tough, author of a new book titled “How Children Succeed.” Tough has been promulgating the idea that skills—including self control and persistence—are non-cognitive.

He argues against what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis” where what matters most is stuffing information into children’s brains. Instead (the operant word), he calls for developing different qualities:

… a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

I, too, have been investigating these issues for the past 11 years by reviewing longitudinal studies from numerous academic disciplines. I have found that, in fact, there are a group of skills that predict school and life success, and many are similar to Tough’s. These include focus and self control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges and being a self-directed learner. This is the list of skills I would argue are most important because they are based on numerous studies that follow children as they grow up.

Using the list of skills I identify, it is clear that they are indeed cognitive. They are also social and emotional. All of these skills are based on executive functions of the brain. These are the brain functions we use to manage our attention, our emotions and our behavior in pursuit of our goals. Adele Diamond—one of the foremost researchers on executive functions—finds that they predict children’s success as well as—if not better than—IQ tests, as she explains:

Typical traditional IQ tests measure what’s called crystallized intelligence, which is mostly your recall of what you’ve already learned—like, what’s the meaning of this word or what’s the capital of that country? What executive functions tap is your ability to use what you already know—to be creative with it, to problem solve with it—so it’s very related to fluid intelligence, because that requires reasoning and using information.

The skills I think we should promote are not only cognitive, social and emotional, they reap cognitive results. As just one example, a new study by Megan McClelland of Oregon State University and her colleagues found that one aspect of executive function skills in four-year-olds—what the researchers call “attention-span persistence”—is strongly predictive of whether or not these same children graduated from college when they were 25 years old. The researchers define attention span-persistence as “the ability to focus, attend to relevant information and persist on a task.”

We need to take the essential life skills I’ve identified seriously and realize children need both content and skills. Content is the “what” of learning; content is also the “how.”

(This article was adapted from a post Galinsky wrote for Huffington Post on October 11, 2012.)