Tests, tests and more tests. And still, in many countries all around the world, students do not seem to be making the progress that is desired despite of all of the efforts. All of these tests try to measure learning outcomes in key subjects such as language, mathematics and science but little attention is paid to the development of character, mindset and other non-technical skills that are key to success, not only in the school setting but later on in life.
Indeed, Nobel Laureate James Heckman, as well as many others, would argue that emotional and social development is just as important as cognitive development; in fact, critical for life-long learning. Children who learn to self-regulate and manage their emotions are better able to concentrate and problem solve. In this regard, a recent report Skills for Success: supporting and assessing key habits, mindset, and skills in PreK – 12 by Melissa Tooley and Laura Bornfreund caught my eye. While research has demonstrated the importance of these skills, the authors point out that it typically can only be found in high quality preschool programs where adequate attention is placed on the development of skills such as collaboration, perseverance, emotional intelligence. Once children enter kindergarten and primary school, the pendulum swings sharply towards the development of academic skills. Don’t misunderstand me, definitely, all children need to learn to read and write successfully. However, it appears that academic-based learning goes hand in hand with the development of these core socio emotional skills. Moreover, these skills are malleable and can continue to be developed and finely tuned even in adolescence.
So what can we do? As a first step, we need to go back to preschool. We need to take note of the importance placed on the holistic development of the child and of the positive school climate in quality programs. Creative play, socializing and working together are key characteristics of such programs. I think back to the visits I made to Reggio Emilio preschools in Italy many years ago and the amazing energetic ambiance that exists there. Clearly, in preschool and on-wards, the school and classroom climate can either help promote or deter the development of skills for success. The best teacher in the world will not be able to fully overcome the barriers caused by a negative educational environment. Lastly, in terms of testing, perhaps a more holistic assessment of students, balancing academic subject mastery with formative evaluations could be more helpful for teachers, parents and students combined.