Building Cognitive Skills for Life After High School

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Penelope Pak McMillen

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Cognitive Skills, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to Penelope Pak McMillen, a former executive director of Summit Preparatory High School and now a mentor for Summit Learning, about the impact of helping students build transferable cognitive skills for life after high school.

The transcript below is a condensed version of Penelope Pak McMillen’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

You have this unique experience of having been both a teacher and then an executive director. Can you provide us with an example of a project…and some of the Cognitive Skills that you might have assessed and what those look like in practice?

When we talk about Cognitive Skills at Summit Public Schools, we are really thinking about critical thinking skills such as communicating effectively with different types of audiences; or selecting relevant resources; or data analysis and understanding how you can evaluate a bunch of information, determine what is credible and what is not, and really make a sound decision based on the information that you have.

And so we think of those types of skills as lifelong skills. They are skills that every human being needs in order to make sound decisions as they continue to grow and as they continue to mature. And so when we think about what it means to be successful in life, we truly believe that those skills, along with Habits of Success or being emotionally intelligent and being self-aware, are the things that are needed in order for people to really live this life and fulfill the goals that they have, fulfill the dreams that they have, and create really good pathways to ensuring that they can be successful.

Summit Prep students
Penelope Pak McMillen, far right, with students and teachers from Summit Prep.

All of our projects in [Summit’s] curriculum are focused on assessing those types of skills, and one of my favorite projects in 9th grade English is the persuasive speech project. Students are really asked to take a stand on a topic that they believe in. The purpose of the project is to write and present a persuasive speech that informs the audience of all the pertinent information, provides the counter arguments against the position and the point of view that they have, and help the audience make a sound choice on whether or not they want to get involved.

Audience and purpose is huge in any type of communication. Understanding who your audience is and understanding the nuances of communication, ensure that everyone that you’re speaking with is actually actively listening to what you have to say and finds credibility in the information that you are providing.

But of course with that project, students still need to show proficiency in English content. So they need to have subject-verb agreement in sentences. They need to have cohesion and development in their paragraphs. There still is that marriage of content knowledge and Cognitive Skills, where they’re taking a concept and they’re applying it to a real-world skill.

Summit places more weight on students developing Cognitive Skills in terms of their grade — it’s 70% of their grade. Why is that weighed more heavily than content knowledge?

I think that content knowledge is important to have and it’s important to demonstrate proficiency or competency in those pieces of content. However, I think all of us can look back at our own educational experience and identify key pieces of content that we may need, we don’t necessarily remember and we may need to refresh our learning on. And so, in this day and age, finding that information is so easy to do.

Most of us spend a lifetime growing and progressing in critical thinking skills; it’s the skill to make sound, rational choices, the skill to have self-management and not make quick, snap judgments on things.

And so we want to ensure that all of our students within the program have enough time to practice and develop those skills and make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, so that by the time… they leave high school, they have had enough experience and exposure and practice those skills to help minimize set backs.

What’s the most memorable experience you had in helping prepare a student to graduate high school and lead a fulfilled life?

I think back to one of my 9th grade English students who came in freshman year having had a pretty bad experience in elementary school and middle school. She was bullied a lot and she was ostracized.

We spent so much time ensuring that we built a culture… where everyone is responsible for everyone all the time, and that we work together as a community and we “Leave No Husky Behind”, which is our [Summit Preparatory Charter High School’s] motto, and that we give space and time for students to get to know each other really well.

The first couple weeks of school we shared with her that the culminating project in 9th grade English is this persuasive speech that I talked about earlier where they had to deliver the speech in front of at least 50 of their peers.

She was very hesitant and reluctant throughout the school year, but she knew it happened at the very end of the school year, so she knew she had some time. But for her, being at Summit was a very different experience, where people would talk to her. So, slowly but surely, she was kind of breaking out of her shell… but she still kept to herself a lot. When it came time for her to choose her topic for her persuasive speech, she decided to take a risk and write a topic on bullying in general, and what it means to be bullied — in particular when you are a person who has a very clear and visible physical disability.

The day came when it was her turn to deliver the speech. She stood up on that podium and delivered it perfectly and her whole class was jumping out of their chairs and giving her hugs because of just how convincing and persuasive she was in her delivery, but also because they were just so proud of her.

Most of them had not had… a long conversation with her throughout the entire year, and just to see her be who she is, and for them to see who she is for the very first time in much greater detail and in such a high stakes environment… they had so much pride for her… it was just such a magical moment.

We’re talking about Cognitive Skills, but we’re never talking about just Cognitive Skills, because like any of the [student] outcomes they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re dependent on other factors being in place… What are some of the other components that need to be in place in a classroom or whole-school level in order for students to be successful in developing the types of Cognitive Skills that we believe they need to be successful after high school?

All of the adults [need to] have a growth mindset towards what students are capable of doing, and through that growth orientation they’re committed to continuously improving their work. So the adults are making progress everyday in their pedagogy or in their instructional skills along with the students, as the students grow each day in their content knowledge and their skills.

Also, I think the understanding of how important it is to coach students around developing those habits — what I think a lot of people call soft skills — and as an adult, being able to model those skills in front of them. Modeling your self-awareness and your social awareness… I think being vulnerable as well, admitting your own mistakes but then taking action to change the course of action that led to that mistake, and knowing that every opportunity that you have with a student — whether it’s the time that you have when they’re sitting in your classroom or just walking by them in the hallway — is in an opportunity to engage with them and help them grow and learn.

Did you enjoy this episode or have ideas for a future episode? Subscribe to Summit Sparks on iTunes and leave us a review! Read about how one Summit senior, who is also interning this year with Summit, used Cognitive Skills to help her with the college application process.

About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.