Soft Skills And Hard Facts
In this insightful blog post, education expert Robert Pondiscio praises Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” but takes issue with Tough’s implication that with enough grit and persistence, kids can overcome any obstacle.
Kids do need these character strengths, Pondiscio writes, but they also need something else—a broad base of content knowledge:
” . . . it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.
‘A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,’ [UVA cognitive scientist Daniel] Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, ‘How Knowledge Helps.’ ‘It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer.
‘In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.’
Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so. But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be ‘it’s all about character’ or ‘grit trumps cognitive ability.’
Not quite right . . . grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.
The suggested takeaway for educators: Kids need grit. But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.” Read more here.
I think Robert is exactly right—a focus on so-called “soft skills,” though important, shouldn’t obscure the fact that kids also need hard facts. In order to learn to think, they need something to think about.