Monday, September 19, 2011

'Non-cognitive' Skills and the American Bias Towards Rules

Recently the term "noncognitive skills" has caught on in business and education circles. Just google 'noncognitive' to see that many academically published research articles use "noncognitive" as an umbrella term for anything which cannot be measured by a written test, usually things like communication, kindness, social intelligence, perseverance, and other 'intangible' traits.

But 'non-cognitive' is really quite a bizarre term to use! All of these skills have to be learned somehow, and so why is the term 'noncognitive' being used? 'Cognitive' comes from the Latin 'cognoscere' 'with knowledge.' 'Non-rational', or 'not based on rules' is a much better description of these skills.

The reason 'noncognitive' has stuck is that academics in America have a huge bias towards rules. We take it as a given that a technical solution must exist to every problem. The idea that these skills could be 'non-rational' or 'not based on rules' is highly unappealing to us, so we prefer the ambiguous 'non-cognitive' label.

This is a mistake. It is interesting to note that, despite its abundant use in university-level research, there is no wikipedia page on "noncognitive skills." A google search for "non-cognitive skills" returns 162,000 results, while a search for "non-rational skills", the correct phrase, returns just 277 results!

Carl Jung wrote in the just recently published Red Book, "Scholarliness alone is not enough, there is a knowledge of the heart that gives deeper insight." Knowledge/cognition goes deeper than scholarliness or rationality. We must look beyond institutional, formalized knowledge, and into the knowledge of compassion in our hearts if we wish to move society forward.

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