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We Intuitively Know that Academics Aren’t the Whole Picture of Long-Term Flourishing

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last August, I was leading a professional development workshop at a large high school in Wyoming. I asked the staff of 120 teachers to picture a student they felt was likely to succeed in life. I gave them about ten seconds to do this.

Then, I asked them to tell me why they selected that student. In just a word or two, what is it about that student that brought them to mind?

“Perseverance,” one person called out.

“Curious.”

“Supportive parents.”

“Hard working.”

“Pushes the boundaries.”

“Kind-hearted.”

“All right,” I said. “Thank you for those. Now, did anyone come up with something academic as their descriptor? Something like, ‘Good at math’ or ‘A great reader’ or ‘Strong grasp of agricultural science?’”

In the room of 120 educators, guess how many hands went up?

Zero.

As I report in the second chapter of These 6 Things, I've run this simple thought experiment with several thousand educators around the United States, and this is consistently the result. Without giving participants any front-loading — similar to how I started this blog post — I find that well less than five percent of respondents cite academic skills or dispositions (e.g., love for reading) as the reasons for selecting a given student as likely to succeed. (And for more on how science suggests our intuition matters, see my article on Unconscious Thought Theory.)

And yet, what are the things that we measure in our schools? What gets tied to our evaluation scores, merit pay structures, or high-stakes accountability systems?

Academic outcomes.

As it turns out, I think we're smart to measure these things. We have to. Despite our collective intuition that academics aren't the sole or primary determiners of long-term flourishing, academic outcomes do play a critical part. The person you become while working at mastering algebra or music or physics is a person more likely to succeed long-term — both because of the knowledge you are building and because of the noncognitive byproducts of the hard work of mastery.

Academic mastery matters. But our current system seems both woefully inadequate at measuring academic mastery — in my own state, mastery of world history is assessed using seven multiple choice questions two years after students take the course — and painfully ignorant of what we know intuitively — that academics aren't the whole picture of long-term flourishing.

More to come, but up next: how we empirically know that academics alone aren't the whole picture.

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