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01 Dec 2020

Getting Through the Day (and other acts of perseverance)

by Val Kelly

Somewhere in the process of navigating COVID19, I latched on to the idea of a 1-hour walk every day. So far, I’ve been pretty consistent. It didn’t take me long to realize that podcasts and audio books were wonderful motivators for taking a walk. I am continually amazed at the brilliance of the creative people producing these for my enjoyment. This discovery led me to walk more and write a blog where I could work through the many inspiring ideas.

In A Hidden Brain podcast “What’s Not on the Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success” Shankar Vedantum interviews Nobel laureate, James Heckman. In the early 1990’s, Heckman had learned about a program in Texas that was helping to turn high school dropouts into high school graduates. With just a few months of testing preparation, high school dropouts were able to take high school equivalency tests, and much to Heckman’s surprise, scored as well on the tests as those who had completed four years of schooling.

This program, called the GED, became prevalent around the country as a way for high school dropouts to get back on track. Heckman was intrigued to study this seemingly very successful program. However, although he found little variance in the test scoring, as he continued to track GED recipients, he found vast differences between their success in life and that of the typical high school graduate. Life success indicators included employment, incarceration, marriage, and health.

Heckman states that “It was kind of a revealing insight that these people were as smart as high school graduates measured by the kind of test that so much public policy focuses on. But in real life, they were really not succeeding in any real way.” This realization made Heckman think about the importance of other, non-cognitive, dimensions of human behavior.

A range of non-cognitive characteristics mentioned by Heckman include resilience, persistence, the ability to bounce back from failure, conscientiousness, openness new ideas and people, agreeableness, or “character” as defined broadly. Although it seems intuitive that these traits are important to success in life, public policy tends to prefer more identifiable cognitive traits that can be measured through standardized testing like IQ tests. His study and others mentioned in the podcast found that the ability to follow-through and complete a task was a much better predictor of life success than an cognitive test score.

As a student in a small school in the 1960’s and 70’s, my world was one where children were put in A, B, and C groups, for all subjects, for all of their elementary through high school experience. It wasn’t possible to be advanced in reading and behind in math, or behind in reading one year, but well-situated the next. Cognitive abilities were determined early and only very rarely deemed possible to change.

As a beneficiary of Title IX and the introduction of women’s sports in high school, I learned the importance of non-cognitive skills. Whether shooting, throwing, or kicking a ball, I was forever being reminded to “follow-through”. I have come to recognize how essential it is to achieve a goal - even if no ball is involved. Coincidentally, women’s sports was one of the few opportunities to interact with students from the other “groups”. Working together, bouncing back from defeat, learning resilience and persistence in adverse conditions gave me some of my best memories from school and perhaps some of my best training for life.

In Higher Ed we easily recognize the cognitive abilities that it takes to succeed, but often forget about the importance of non-cognitive skills like perseverance for life-long success. When we do acknowledge this non-cognitive skill, we often assume an external motivator. Good grades and diplomas are often the assumed motivators and stated goals. The actual journey of learning, the ability to doggedly pursue understanding and develop the skills needed to persevere often goes unremarked.

Should developing skills of tenacity and persistence be part of our stated learning outcomes? In the age of Covid19, perhaps more emphasis should be on the non-cognitive skills that are being developed while we survive adversity. Maybe teachers and students both should not only give each other a bit more space for imperfection, but should truly revel in the magnificence of perseverance.