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Aurora Institute

Three Factors for Success: Agency, Integrated Identity, and Competencies

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency

ydThere is growing interest – and I would also argue growing confusion – about all the skills and dispositions that aren’t academic content areas. They are often lumped together under the phrase “non-cognitive.” I fully agree with Andy Calkins that the term “non-cognitive” is problematic. In fact, I would say it is downright silly and makes us sound like we don’t know anything about learning and brain science when we suggest higher order thinking skills are not part of a cognitive process.

However, I don’t think the answer is in finding the right terminology, but in understanding how all these skills and dispositions relate to learning and to the development of young people into what we have called college and career ready. There is significant difference between dispositions such as grit or perseverance and skills related to self-knowledge such as self-control, not to mention skills used in projects and work such as collaboration and communication, and thinking skills such as analysis or evaluation used in almost every academic pursuit. I’m not quite sure where creativity goes at all …perhaps it is a category unto itself.

It’s important to understand these differences and think carefully about how they are nurtured, what they look like developmentally that might be structured as benchmarks, and how they are assessed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for formal summative assessments. It doesn’t make sense to me to try to have NAEP monitoring grit at this point in time unless we really understand how all these dispositions and skills fit together. And until we determine which ones, if any,  are important to measure. It’s much more important for us to figure out how schools and teachers, working with community partners, develop and assess as a cycle of learning and development.

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has just released an absolutely groundbreaking developmental framework that could help us on our way of understanding how these concept fit together. The report, Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework, provides a two-tier framework (captured in this infographic). The authors propose that young adults will be successful when three key factors are in place: agency, integrated identity, and competencies. According to the report, “These factors capture how a young adult poised for success interacts with the world (agency), the internal compass that a young adult uses to make decisions consistent with her values, beliefs, and goals (an integrated identity), and how she is able to be effective in different tasks (competencies).” Underlying the key factors are four foundational components: self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values.

The authors define these factors as:

Agency is the ability to make choices about and take an active role in one’s life path, rather than solely being the product of one’s circumstances. Agency requires the intentionality and forethought to derive a course of action and adjust that course as needed to reflect one’s identity, competencies, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values.

Integrated Identity is a sense of internal consistency about who one is across time and across multiple social identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, profession, culture, gender, religion). An integrated identity serves as an internal framework for making choices and provides a stable base from which one can act in the world.

Competencies are the abilities that enable people to effectively perform roles, complete complex tasks, or achieve specific objectives. Successful young adults have sets of competencies (e.g., critical thinking, responsible decision-making, ability to collaborate) that allow them to be productive and engaged, navigate across contexts, perform effectively in different settings, and adapt to different task and setting demands.

The definition of competencies may cause us some trouble, as states and districts are creating the academic competencies (whereas the authors of the report would call these foundational knowledge and skills). However, I think there is something helpful in identifying academics as “knowledge” and the thinking and applying skills as “competencies.” What’s important is to remember that students need both knowledge and competencies – one without the other doesn’t get you far.

There is a lot of potential in establishing “agency” as a key factor. All those areas related to character, disposition, and self-management can be included here, as they are all related to students being able to manage themselves, their learning, and how they interact with their environments.

The authors also emphasize that we need to think of these factors in terms of developmental stages, something that has rarely been done in the world of “non-cogs” or social-emotional learning. They break it into five stages with developmental tasks for each:

  • Early childhood (ages 3 to 5): Self-regulation; inter-personal (social-emotional) knowledge and skills
  • Middle childhood (ages 6 to 10): Self-regulation (self-awareness and self-control); learning-related skills and knowledge; interpersonal skills
  • Early adolescence (ages 11 to 14): Group-based identity; emerging mindsets
  • Middle adolescence (ages 15 to 18): Sense of values; individuated identity
  • Young adulthood (ages 19 to 22): Integrated identity

This makes me begin to think that schools aren’t just creating learning opportunities, they are creating learning and development opportunities – LEDE opportunities. By focusing on LEDE, we begin to think more closely about those habits, skills, and characteristics that students need for developing agency, and integrated identity and the competencies as well as the academic knowledge.

What isn’t identified, and what the authors identify as a major gap in the research, is how to help students who didn’t reach some of these developmental benchmarks to learn them later on. This is critically important for students who have experienced substantial trauma from living in communities with a lot of violence or who have spent time in juvenile detention (which means a lot of our young men of color). We need to learn from the schools that are successful in serving students who are over-age and undercredited, such as Schools for the Future, Apex, Building 21 and Boston Day and Evening Academy, about what it takes to help students mature and re-engage after years of feeling like they are failures. Their insights will be invaluable to us.

Thanks to Jenny Nagaoka, Camille A. Farrington, Stacy B. Ehrlich, and Ryan D. Heath with David W. Johnson, Sarah Dickson, Ashley Cureton Turner, Ashley Mayo, and Kathleen Hayes.