Mar 7, 2016 by


[Please give particular attention to the section entitled “It Shouldn’t Be Done.”  This section points out that teachers who are not trained as psychologists/psychiatrists should not be involved in trying to force students to fall in line with what the schools consider “normative, non-cognitive traits.” – Donna Garner]  

While educators are rejoicing over the lighter test burden for public schools in the re-enacted Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA), they may soon be facing a new requirement: the learning and testing of non-cognitive (also sometimes called social-emotional) attributes. This domain is an ascending educational priority having already found its way into the Program for International Student Assessment tests (PISA) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Measuring and teaching the non-cognitive has strong attractions. Advocates believe it will boost academic success, since some identified non-cognitive traits have been linked to better test scores. Further, it identifies qualities of potential importance to a well-lived life usually ignored by schools. It validates students who are strong in such areas but weaker in academic accomplishments. Best of all is the anticipated bonus of off-loading discipline to students’ inner controls, thereby alleviating a constant stressor for teachers and students.

Yet the intrusion of non-cognitive teaching and testing into schools is not a prospect we welcome. Our opposition is based on two claims: teaching and testing this loose amalgam of traits is impossible to do well and would be undesirable even if feasible.

It cannot realistically be done.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Valerie,

    I can appreciate your concern about the “soft-skills,” how it fits in the school day, how it can be measured, and more importantly, are teachers qualified to teach the “subject.” For me, as an inner-city elementary school teacher (NYCDOE, retired in 2002) for 34 years, I felt the need to develop curricula in self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-education. I felt that my students were not in present time, and lacked the concentration/focusing skills to get into any lesson. So I created “The Contemplation Music Writing Project,” which uses music, listening, contemplation, writing, discussion, and self-assessments to improve and expand the kids’ (grades 2 to 6) EI/SEL skills along with their academic skills. (NOTE: This is NOT a program in “music therapy,” but one that attempts to teach awareness and motivational skills through an inquiry- and passion-based approach.)

    Over a 25-year period, from the 70s to the early 2000s, there were extreme positive results. The students were assessed in 2 ways: (1) “The Student Contemplation Questionnaire” (consisting of 12 questions answered in sentence format/not multiple choice responses), and what I call, “Contemplation Comprehension,” where the class was presented with one child’s contemplation writing (paragraph length) and asked to answer several “comprehension questions,” to test their EI/SEL knowledge and insight and the ability to write a coherent response.

    In addition, I gave the class quotations reflecting their overall experiences–both written and verbal–in my “Sight-In” lessons. Examples of quotes used were: “Know thyself,” “Knowledge is power,” “My eyes make pictures when they are shut,” etc.

    Another evaluation was an offshoot of “Contemplation Music Writing” called “Reflection Writing,” which came about because many of the children’s writings were about past experiences still circulating in their minds and imaginations. For example, “Recall a time when you were angry with: a friend, brother/sister, parent, or teacher.” This original writing format came as an end of the school year evaluation where I looked for greater “inner-sight” into issues and problems and how they resolved or did not resolve the conflict.

    I don’t talk about “grit” and “joy” levels; this is more of a practical, intrinsically-motivating approach: kids get into themselves and learn to handle their inside and outside worlds. As a result, they did improve their EI/SEL skills as well as their abilities in writing, reading, thinking, and creativity.

    Another positive outcome was that Contemplation Music Writing led to poetry writing (and reading). My students’ poems have been published in professional, writers’, college, gifted secondary, and children’s literary journals/magazines across the US, including by major book publishers.

    To get a basic idea of my project, please go to my guest-blog post at Edutopia titled, “Using ‘Music Writing’ to Trigger Creativity, Awareness, Motivation, and Poetry” at

    Check out my website,, to find my articles, samples of the students’ contemplation writings and their published poetry.

    Currently I’m a blogger for The BAM Radio Network’s blog, EDWords, at:, and also, a contributing writer for EDUCATION NEWS where you can find many of my posts. The link is:

    I strongly believe that my curricula would appeal to many readers, educators, administrators, and parents of THE WASHINGTON POST or other newspapers and magazines you write for. Please let me know if you would be interested in writing about the project.

    Thank you so much for considering my proposal.

    Best regards,

    Jeffrey Pflaum

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