Nonacademic Skills and the Many Names the Go By

In a recent education piece, NPR writer Anya Kamenetz provides an overview of the flashy terms and buzzwords that keep popping up in education research:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits and Habits
  • Social and Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

These terms are commonly used to describe key traits of success, whether that’s in school, the workplace, or other life pursuits. I have been interested in the idea of applying the growth mindset idea to educational development, and recently came across the idea of using grit as a potential measure for academic success.

While the article provides a sort of “first flush” attempt at defining these terms, taking the time to develop clear definitions is a critical step for researchers and policy makers. It’s clear that many of these terms are interrelated and overlap, so much so that researchers are likely studying similar phenomena with different semantics. Another issue with the popularity of various terms is the potential for backlash. For instance, the idea of grit as a measure of success caught on quickly before it had time to be studied in rigorous detail. Thus, there have been some misunderstandings about whether or not it can be used as a reliable measure for success, and the context in which studying grit may lead to undesirable narratives. Nevertheless, the increasing interest in the importance of nonacademic skills and traits is a pivotal development in education research that shows no signs of slowing any time soon.



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