Executive Function Strategies Blog

7 Skills For Life: A Developmental Psychologist's Perspective

This week, we feature an interview with Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist and director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College (read her complete bio below). Her article, 7 Things Every Kid Should Master, was published Sunday, March 8 in the Boston Globe Magazine. While Ms. Engel agrees that measuring a child's academic progress is important, she suggests that educators shift to assessing what are essentially skills for life. She has identified seven skills and attributes through her research that are critical for success in academics and other areas of life: Reading, Inquiry, Flexible Thinking and Use of Evidence, Conversations, Collaborations, Engagement, and Well-being. Rather than the current system of standardized testing, with its many demands on educators, administrators, and students, Ms. Engel proposes a simpler system of sampling students' work for evidence of how a child's skills are developing.

"Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests. I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes."

JS: Please tell us about your professional background. 

SEWell, I began teaching at Williams College 25 years ago, though for three years in the middle I went toSusanEngel Bennington College to start a graduate program in teaching for them. But before I was a college teacher, I taught young children, so the two, research about education and development, and actual work in schools, have always gone hand in hand for me.

JS: You are critical of the current educational climate of standardized testing for students K-12, as you note a lack of evidence for predicting outcomes based on those test results. Rather, you propose 7 skills or attributes that should assessed. How did you go about developing that list?

SE: That list developed over time, and even now it’s not set in stone, rather it just seems headed in the right direction. I crafted the list by thinking about what intellectual dispositions seem really essential for a full life, as well as enabling people to be active thoughtful members of their community: able to make informed voting decisions, able to learn new information, about to work and live with others, and so forth. At one point I convened a group of 18 psychologists who had a wide range of expertise to help me think about it, and make sure I wasn’t overlooking some important intellectual activity. I tried to keep it to a bare minimum, thinking that if we zeroed in on a few essential dispositions and helped children develop those really well, it would be far more valuable than what we have now- lots of kids who have just a little of many isolated skills and types of knowledge. I’ve taken to thinking about our current approach as a form of intellectual window-shopping. Kids just skim by lots of stuff that’s not particularly meaningful or important to their long-term intellectual development

JS: One of the core skills you mention in your Boston Globe Magazine article is Engagement, the ability to fully immerse in an activity. As Executive Function coaches, we call this sustained attention. We agree that it’s a skill that can be developed. How might classroom teachers develop this skill in their students?

SEThe first step to fostering engagement is to give students material and activities that they find absorbing. After all, watch a child who likes blocks spend time with a nice set of them. They are naturally focused, persevering, and absorbed. A key element here is giving students enough time with the things they find engaging. We often rush them all day long, and then wonder why they lack the ability to focus in a sustained way. That said, engagement can be nudged along. Teachers can suggest a slightly new angle (“did you consider putting a roof on your spaceship garage?”, “Now that you’ve made a map of our school, why not make a map of the whole town?” and so forth). Simply put, it’s intellectual scaffolding. Not fancy, but very effective.

JS: Another skill you mentioned in the article that hits close to home for us is Flexible Thinking and Use of Evidence. Cognitive flexibility is an important foundation skill in executive function development; it helps students creatively problem-solve both academically and socially. Some may argue that learning to solve word problems in math, for example, requires flexible thinking, and that writing good essays for English or history classes involves citing relevant evidence. What’s a more effective way to determine if these skills have been generalized?

SE: Solving word problems might help with flexible thinking if students really got what they were doing and were interested in the underlying reality captured in the word problem, but usually they don’t. Instead they focus on procedures that will get them to the answer. Same with essay writing. Kids end up using formulas and rules to get a good grade, rather than really figure out what they think and want to communicate to others. In other words, they learn to bypass real thinking rather than engage in it. Often they don’t care enough about what they are writing about to want to say it better, or strengthen their idea. Too often we overlook the simplest ways to encourage good thinking: conversations in which participants are challenged to support their point of view, put things in a different way, and provide examples. One of the reasons kids from well educated families do better in school is that they’ve been exposed to lots of informal but high level exchanges about things of mutual interest. Kids who are not from such families don’t need some other more rote form of instruction. They need informal high level exchanges about things that interest them.

JS: How are you guiding students, who are planning careers as educators, in your classes at Williams to develop these 7 core skills in their future students?

SE: By talking about them in my class, by inviting my students to figure out for themselves what they think kids need to learn or develop. Most important, I insist they read a lot about child development, and learn how to observe children in action. No curriculum guide or bag of teaching techniques beats watching a kid, thinking about what might be going on in that student’s mind, and coming up with activities or interactions that might get that student more engaged and more thoughtful.

JS: Your ideas mark a significant departure from current practices in our schools. What do you think it would take to turn the tide of standardized assessments as way to measure students’ achievement? 

SE: Two things: a new way of thinking (which is what I hoped to communicate in my new book) and a critical mass of public schools trying this out. That will take some courage and conviction on the part of principals, teachers and families. None of the ideas I recommend in my book are so outlandish that implementing them would pose a big risk. And I have seen schools that embody these ideas, at least in part. So I know how well it works, for everyone involved.

Susan Engel is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. Her research interests include the development of curiosity, children’s narratives, play, and more generally, teaching and learning. Her current research looks at whether students learn to think differently in college. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Cognitive Development, Harvard Educational Review, and the American Education Research Journal. She is the author of six books: The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood, Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory, Real Kids: Making Sense in Everyday Life, Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, and The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools. Her writing on education has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Boston Globe. She is a founder of, and the educational advisor to an experimental school in NY State. She is currently writing a book on high school. 

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