Measuring a Child's Co-Cognitive Traits

By William Diskin posted 11-10-2016 21:42


At independent schools, we value goodness in our students.  We work hard to establish core values and expectations within our communities -- and we celebrate as students demonstrate their courage, passion, and kindness toward others. (Think “Heart”)


At the same time, we value deep thinking and learning.  We encourage our students to take challenging courses – the most challenging possible -- to push their own intellectual limits and prepare for the countless other challenges they will face down the road. (Think “Brain”)


Woven into and throughout all of this, though, are a variety of personal traits that we’ve come to appreciate in our students.  Qualities like persistence, perseverance, initiative, and grit.  We notice these qualities in our students. We observe them.  We encourage them.  And, as teachers will, we try to measure them. 


"Exam" by Alberto G is licensed under CC BY 2.0

After all – it is becoming clear that while students need a certain level of good old brain power to tackle our schools’ college prep curricula, students who exhibit these co-cognitive attributes can quickly set themselves apart. These are students who excel as young people – beyond the test scores and report cards.  These are our initiators, leaders, thinkers, and doers.


So, this is where things get a little fuzzy. 


As director of admission, I’ve been facilitating the academic screening process of independent school applicants (students of all ages) for decades.  While the names of the screening tools have changed over the years – the basic premise has not.  Let’s test these applicants’ skills in math, reading comprehension, and writing – and we will produce a report that will tell us the likelihood of that child being successful in school.  I get to do the fun work of calling parents to say “Sally’s been accepted!”  I even do the uncomfortable work of writing to parents to inform them that “our school is not a good fit for Oscar” after he bombs the standardized entrance test.


But it’s not that simple.  Children, as we all know instinctively, are more than test scores.


At Cannon School, a JrK – Grade 12 independent school in Concord, NC, we are exploring ways to learn more about our students.   For years, we’ve believed in an educational philosophy based on the concept of adaptive expertise.  We believe that, with the proper mindset, any problem can be solved. We envision our graduates as the team leaders of the future – stepping up confidently to address the newest challenges with creativity and imagination.  We encourage all of our students to be reflective and empathetic. So, it’s not a surprise that we value traits in our students like curiosity, autonomy, and flexibility.


And…things just got fuzzier.  Here’s why:


  1. It’s relatively easy to test for math and reading comprehension.
  2. We can even keep track of a student’s capacity for being kind and honest.
  3. But is it possible to measure a child’s co-cognitive traits like autonomy, perseverance, and grit?


Answering Number 3 on the list is the one of our goals.  If we value these kinds of traits in our students, shouldn’t we try to measure them when we meet prospective students?  It feels out of sync to be using the same old standardized tests in the admission office when, in our classrooms, we are leaping forward in our understanding and appreciation of our students’ potential.


Back to Oscar. 


He applied last spring.  He scored terribly on the entrance exam. My stuffy letter to his parents explained that it just wasn’t a good fit…


Where is he now?


There’s a chance he is thriving in an academic atmosphere somewhere that values personal qualities like metacognition.  Oscar understands how he learns. And he knows how to reflect on his efforts, make adjustments, and take a more creative approach to finding a solution. He appreciates the opportunity to team up with other students and consider all the possibilities they have for addressing their next challenge. He’s an adaptive expert.


Guess what.  Our old standardized entrance test missed that.  He might have been a great fit for our school.


We need to find a way to get to know Oscar. Not just his test scores.





ImageDisplay.aspx?Key=fd4bc36a-93ec-4ec9-8121-91c8753223bf&dt=499190430086&h=200&w=200About William Diskin
Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Cannon School in Concord, NC

Bill joined Cannon School in 2007. Before coming to Cannon, Bill was the Director of Admission and Marketing at York Country Day School in York, Pennsylvania. He also held various positions at Winchester Thurston School over the course of twelve years.

A Pittsburgh native and devoted Penguins fan, Bill earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His wife, Nicole, serves as an advisor and coach in the Middle School. They are the parents of Chloe '10, Jakob ’17, Ben ’19, and Eliott ’21. In his spare time, Bill enjoys reading, writing, and fishing.



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