4 Ways Educators Can Build Students’ Lifelong Cognitive Skills

Summit Sparks Podcast Recap: Cognitive Skills

At the close of each month, we check in and reflect back on the different perspectives that we’ve heard from our podcast interview guests around a common theme. For November, that theme is building Cognitive Skills.

As one of four student outcomes, Summit Public Schools defines Cognitive Skills as interdisciplinary, higher-order thinking skills, with an emphasis on transferability across subjects, grade-levels and contexts; an active role in learning; and development of skills across a continuum over a lifetime.

Similar to last month, each of our four podcast guests interviewed this November brings different experiences and areas of expertise in education to the conversation. With each of these varied perspectives informing our final narrative, here’s what we’ve learned this month about Cognitive Skills:

Shift to Student-Centered Learning Puts Emphasis on Skill Development

Cognitive Skills do not exist independent of Summit’s other three student outcomes — Habits of Success, Content Knowledge, and Sense of Purpose. Development of these skills is dependent on students working toward all four outcomes. And, like the other three, development of Cognitive Skills is helped by the structures and resources in place at the whole-school level.

Project-based learning, for example allows students to apply Content Knowledge and develop essential Cognitive Skills, like analyzing various sources of evidence or developing multiple hypotheses, through hands-on, authentic projects. This way of learning starts with a shift in teaching mindset, says Buck Institute for Education’s John Larmer:

“Schools need to do a lot of things differently to really make PBL successful. I think first they have to realize it is a different way to teach. It’s not just one more tool you drop into a teacher’s tool box with a workshop and nothing else changes. It really is a different way to think about learning. It’s more of a constructivist approach, where students are actually building their understanding by learning by doing. They’re not just having knowledge poured into empty heads, which they regurgitate on a test. It’s a different way to learn.”

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A bulletin board at Camp Ernst Middle School in Kentucky outlines what students are working on in project based learning time (PBL) and personalized learning time (PLT).

Student Choice Ensures Greater Engagement in Learning Skills

While the teacher maintains an essential role in helping direct and organize students’ learning, students have more autonomy over how they best learn and what topics of interest they choose to explore. The power of this self-directed learning is something teacher Anna Thompson recognized after her first year of using project-based learning in her 6th-grade English classroom:

“That element of student choice is really important. There was a shift there that students could really choose where their narrative was going to go. Then having that concrete ability to look at the rubric and see those actions that they could take allowed them to stop worrying so much about like, “Oh, I’m not a very good writer. I guess I’ll just write a not a very good piece.”

“They really saw like, ‘Oh, you mean if I add this piece into my narrative, then the writing will be better, and I will be better at this skill.’ It really empowered them and gave them that purpose where they would attack their writing from a totally different attitude of, ‘Oh, I can do this. This is a step I can take. This is going to make a big difference in my final product.’ That way they could come out with something that they could be really proud of.”

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Sixth graders at Ockerman Middle School in Kentucky sort through Cognitive Skills to match them with their definition.

Emphasis on Cognitive Skills Includes Learning How to Learn

Teaching students Cognitive Skills is also about teaching students the skills for how to learn — from short- and long-term goal-setting to continual self-assessment — skills that not only set students up for success in academics, but that are invaluable once students enter the workplace.

In project-based learning, relevant Cognitive Skills are assessed throughout a project — Summit calls these intermittent assessments “checkpoints” — empowers teachers by allowing them to more clearly see gaps or areas for growth in students thinking and to then orchestrate targeted intervention groups based on where students are. These can be teacher-run or student-run, and teacher Sarah Pierce uses both feedback formats in her classroom:

“I can pull students into smaller groups for specific help. And we have two kinds of help that we do. We do student-initiated help. So in that sense, I last week I had an opportunity to say, ‘Today is a task workshop. You’re gonna work on whatever you need to work on. If you have a task that’s gotten a red or yellow light, (something that I’ve given back to them and said, ‘You need to fix this.’) If you haven’t finished a task yet or if you need to work on your presentation, independent work time. I’m going to be in the lab room’ …and I had about five or six students stand up from their chairs and come and meet me in the lab room, and I was able to work with them specifically. That is student-initiated. The students decide whether they need help.

We also do teacher-initiated help, and that works in the classroom with a type of parallel structure… and that’s based on the assessment data I’ve gotten, so I’m looking at their scores on skills. If students start scoring below grade level, I might be pulling them for a smaller group. I’m pulling five students into group and we’re working in lab room while everybody else also has something meaningful to do. So I’m not stopping my instruction to help specific students. I’m pulling them out of what they would normally be doing to help them.”

Building Cognitive Skills on a Foundation of Social Belonging

A school-wide culture of community and acceptance is also essential if students are to maximize potential through realizing their interests and developing lifelong cognitive skills. This idea of consistent cultural expectations was something we discussed last month with Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder of the nonprofit Turnaround for Children, and it’s also something that Summit Learning Mentor Penelope Pak McMillen talked about this month in her memorable story about one 9th grade student who overcame personal fears and external stereotypes:

“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.

And so 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 and throughout the history of Summit Prep, every single 9th grader has made it through. There have been years where kids hide themselves in the bathroom and refuse to come out in tears, just so nervous and everyone has made it through, we believe, because of the power of the community.”

An environment of acceptance and tolerance provides students with a sense of safety and belonging, a foundation conducive for idea exploration and unfettered skill development. As educators, modeling the life skills and growth mindset that we desire all students to demonstrate is the starting place for building such a culture. In some the cases, this modeling can lead to students’ personal transformation, as Pak told us:

“At the end of the year we also choose five 9th graders to give the same speech in front of the entire school… we chose her… and she gave her speech even better than she did the first time and she had invited her entire family and her extended family and they too had never seen this side of her… we feel so lucky and blessed to be apart of that moment in her life and she went on to be incredibly social and successful in school for the next three years. [She] went on to college and she’s been very successful since, and it just speaks volumes to all the things that we have tried to focus our work around.

Which is developing a community where students are truly known. Where they can identify their passions and grow. And they can do things and explore things that they felt like they never could, they didn’t think that they could do. And it’s still these skills that they are going to continue to use moving forward. So she is now able to walk into any room and have confidence and be able to talk to any type of audience in a way where she draws their attention and inspires them.”


Tune in to the Summit Sparks podcast at the end of this week, when we’ll be starting the conversation around Content Knowledge with Stanford’s Dean of the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Daniel L. Schwartz.

Want to learn more about Cognitive Skills and the other three Summit Learning student outcomes? Download our white paper, The Science of Summit, or the condensed guide, for a deeper dive. 

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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.