What To Teach? What To Learn?
by Christian Perticone - Thursday, May 16th, 2013 In The News

Everyone from educators to economists asks, “What should we teach?” The proposed answers tend to vary according to segments of the student population. Those students who are disadvantaged and underperforming need nurturing during early childhood, and life skills later on – so says the White House on the advice of people like Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman. All capable students who want to serve the economy need to study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Those students who are neither disadvantaged, nor STEM-inclined, apparently need to learn how to think creatively and innovatively in groups. These student segments are of course fluid; it would not be helpful for students to identify with only one group of learners. To emphasize this student perspective, how can we answer the better question, “What do we need to learn?”

Some of the above cited articles offer a little insight. The Mind/Shift article, “If Robots Will Run the World, What Should Students Learn?”4, by Katrina Schwartz explains that our economy of known jobs will become increasingly automated, and that as a result, employees of the future need to learn how to teach themselves, and how to envision jobs that don’t yet exist. The article refers to this skill of ‘learning how to learn’ as metacognition, saying students will need to develop “relationships, flexibility, [and] humanity”. They must focus on “how to make discriminating decisions, resilience, innovation, adaptability, wisdom, ethics, curiosity, how to ask good questions, synthesizing and integrating information, and of course, creating.” This list of metacognitive skills is not short. (And I don’t hear anyone saying, “Oh, this will be a piece of cake.”) Moreover, college and university course catalogues don’t offer, “Curiosity 101”, or a sequence in “Resilience”.

Do students have to wait for their teachers and universities to change in order to learn these skills? Fortunately, no. If students approach their current classes with the mindset that the course content may be secondary to the self-knowledge they gain while learning it, and that grades matter as much as they reflect improvement, then they will be focusing on metacognitive development. More concretely, students need to focus on learning processes like asking questions of others – for example, what sorts of questions elicit the best answers from professors? Or, questioning themselves – how will everyone else complete this assignment? What will I do differently, and what will I do the same? Conversely, students who earn top grades without considering their learning process may be missing out on the lasting benefits of their education.

Another one of the above-cited experts, James Heckman, explains that non-cognitive skills, as opposed to IQ and Standardized Test Scores, are a far greater predictor of success in school and life. “Non-cognitive skills” were mentioned as part of previous blog post, “Should Non-Cognitive Assessments Play a Greater Role in College Admissions Decisions?” From the perspective of an admissions officer, or an educator, the subject of non-cognitive skills and their acquisition is a complex one. A 2012 broadcast of This American Life, episode 474: Back To School, spends the whole show discussing the facets of these skills, their relationship to neurobiology and environment, and their impact on disadvantaged and underperforming students. After listening to the show, the take away for students currently enrolled in college isn’t nearly as complex. Consider this exchange about Heckman’s research, (between the show’s host Ira Glass, and education theorist Paul Tough):

Ira Glass: And so as the research has gone on, what kinds of things have people found are these non-cognitive skills? Like, what are they?

Paul Tough: Well, there’s not sort of a master list of non-cognitive skills right now. The ones that Heckman would refer to and that I think are most important, some of them have to do with self-control. There’s a number of different terms– things like self-regulation skills, self-control, conscientiousness. So that, I think, is one set of things. Just the ability to delay gratification, to resist impulse. When you’re about to make a bad decision, to think twice about it. To keep your temper. All of those things, I think, matter a lot.

Ira Glass: And I feel like when you say that, it makes me think of studies that I think a lot of us have read about where they’ll put a kid into a room. And they have to resist eating a cookie, something like that.

Paul Tough: Yeah, this is called the marshmallow test. And this is a famous test that was done starting back in the 1960s by a psychology professor then at Stanford named Walter Mischel. And he took a bunch of four-year-olds into a room, said, “Here is a marshmallow or a cookie. I’m going to leave the room. If you want, you can just ring this bell, and I’ll come back, and I’ll give you one of this treat. But if you can wait until I come back on my own, then you get two.” And so this was like psychological torture for these kids.

Ira Glass: They were four.

If you haven’t seen a video of this test, watch it now! It’s hysterical. If you want to know more about self-control and its consequences for your future, watch the great TED Talk: The Marshmallow Test and Why We Want Instant Gratification: Silvia Barcellos.

Your college or university’s course catalogue definitely doesn’t offer, “Marshmallow Resistance 101”. Nevertheless, your college experience offers you a true adult version of this test. Never in your life after college will you be allotted as much jurisdiction as to how you spend your time. Before and after college, you are expected to be in certain places at certain times, completing certain tasks. Although you also have these expectations during college, they are nowhere near as strict. You attend each of your classes for forty-five minutes to an hour, two or three times a week. You decide when to take your classes, when to study, when to sleep, when to hang out with friends. That’s a lot of free time. Learning how to manage your time – how to say “no” to your friends, and to yourself – will perhaps be the most valuable lesson of college.

To sum it up, everyone from educators to economists is trying to improve college for future generations. However, if you want “the education of the future” right now, focus on developing metacognitive skills, and self-discipline. All students, no matter their backgrounds or futures, need to think about how they think. Pursue self-knowledge. Understand that you have to manage yourself, and that sometimes means denying yourself instant gratification. The future is bright for those who are prepared!

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