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Is Cognitive Capacity the Civil Rights Issue of Today?

During my freshman orientation at college, I learned for the first time that there are different ways to read. Before I thought I had to read from the beginning to the end, word for word, no matter what. To do otherwise seemed like “cheating.” Today, it is clear that reading (both basic reading and knowing how to read for different purposes) is just the tip of the college preparedness iceberg.

Most students are ill-equipped for college and most pre-college education in its current state is unlikely to change that. We are seeing students who can demonstrate the knowledge and skills embodied in state standards (Common Core reading, writing, and arithmetic), and who are still grossly underprepared for college. (The fact that so many students aren’t even meeting those academic standards is, of course, even more concerning.)

What is missing? Let’s start with what this report on college readiness (as many others) will tell you. Skills like inference, analysis of data, interpretation of findings, developing hypotheses, defining alternative explanations, comparing and contrasting, developing cross-disciplinary insights, and providing relevant evidence for an argument are essential for post-secondary success. These skills are all about how complexly and deeply students can process, associate and evaluate information. It is about their skill in attaching meaning and weaving new knowledge into existing networks of understanding. We might label these thinking skills.

Another missing category of college readiness skills involves things like the ability to handle large amounts of work, and juggle a multitude of activities, assignments, and goals. This category also includes skills such as working in groups, recognizing when one needs help, and explaining what one has learned. These skills rely on social/emotional intelligence and metacognition. We might call this category of skills self-management.

Both thinking skills and self-management skills have as precursors the capacity of students’ basic cognitive processes, including the ability to sustain or divide our attention, to effectively hold onto information in short-term memory, to manipulate visual-spatial information, to have a sense of quantity, to keep information in a sequence. On those foundational skills, we build more “executive” skills – the ability to exert inhibitory control, to hold disparate information in working memory, to shift back and forth between different mind states. Students need the foundation of basic cognitive processes and executive functions in order to start to develop higher-order thinking and self-management skills.

None of this is part of the standards (Common Core or whichever other set of standards you use). Not cognitive processes or executive functions or self-management, or, strangely enough, even thinking skills. While standards may allude to higher-order skills, they do nothing to ensure that students have the underlying cognitive capacity to learn them or that teachers understand how to foster the development of these skills in their students.

The dilemma with our current educational system is that most educators have little knowledge of how students learn and how they come to know. They lack the fundamental understanding even of how brains develop – either at the most basic levels of processing – or at the higher levels required for operating and designing machinery, doing college-level thinking or managing oneself.

For all these underprepared young people, this is far more than an academic curiosity. It is a financial precipice. The impact of low educational attainment on our economy in general and on individual students’ outlook for success is well understood. But perhaps some of its implications are not. The cognitive capacity gap affects low-income students to a greater degree than their more advantaged peers. Unless all students are able to develop the cognitive foundation for learning, then only some will have what it takes to fully access and derive value from their education. This is an issue of access much like other access issues in our society. It may be that the cognitive capacity gap is the civil rights issue of our day.

#CognitiveCapacity #CogntiiveGap #CognitiveSkills


  1. This article speaks directly to the core of what is missing in education. Having raised children with cognitive deficits by diagnosis, I have spent the past 12 years as a parent trying to articulate this concept as a premise for why I believe my sons were not advancing in SPED and 504 modification. This should be shared on other special education support sites to provide a breadth of understanding on learning that seems to be lacking in the exchange between student, teachers and parents. I LOVE THIS. I first found something similar in an article by Dorothy Sayer regarding Trivium and the Lost Tools of Learning. I employed perhaps of quarter of what was mentioned with one son last year and had a bounce in his ability to handle higher level reading tasks with books with greater lexile scores. I AM PLEASED. I want to learn more as I am always sharpening my understanding by reading articiles, developing questions, and seeking answers–you know the stuff the write in invisible ink in the parent manuals of special needs children. ;-D

  2. Well stated Roger. There a very few things we can truely grab hold of that can impact change like the good work you support! Keep making us think!!

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