Exploring Conative Skills

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By Scott Sterling

Adapted from Diane Hampel’s excellent concurrent session at Building Expertise 2014, Embedding Conative Skills in Lessons.

Some teachers have a really tough time developing conative skillsin students. They include interpersonal skills that inform how people work with each other. Few standards govern this aspect of education, and yet it might be the greatest factor determining whether a student becomes successful in college and the global workplace.

In a broad sense, conative skills help students determine future courses of action—not only when interacting with data and skills, but also when interacting with people. Conative skills deal in feelings, emotions, and harnessing them in order to be more productive. They include the ability to:

  • Interpret situations
  • Cultivate a growth mindset
  • Develop resiliency
  • Avoid negative thinking
  • Take various perspectives on an issue
  • Interact responsibly with other people
  • Handle controversy and resolve conflict


Interpreting situations

We all know someone who tends to misread situations, jumps to conclusions, etc. A person with high conative ability has the ability to think about his or her current interpretation, predict the outcome of that interpretation, and change course, if necessary.

Cultivating a growth mindset

Conative skills help people develop a growth mindset, rather than its opposite (a fixed mindset). They create people who believe they can change the world, rather than people who believe the world is something that happens to them. They see everything as a learning experience they can use to grow as people.

Cultivating resiliency

The next generation of standards calls for students to be able to think critically about solutions to problems without developing personal attachment. In other words, they shouldn’t take things personally. If they encounter criticism, they use it to get better.

Avoiding negative thinking

Conatively gifted students keep a positive mindset in their work and interactions. They are able to catch themselves when they start feeling negative. They analyze why negativity is happening and use that analysis to figure out realistic scenarios to craft a new approach.

The ability to take various perspectives on an issue

We tend to think about perspectives only on big-ticket political issues, but we all should consider other people’s points of view on a daily basis in a variety of ways. Again, a systematic approach that helps students make more informed decisions.

Handling controversy and conflict

Controversy is a good thing. It means that people have various opinions, which is human nature. Students need to understand that and deal accordingly. Conflict, however, is slightly different: it’s when a person is actively in the way of another reaching his or her goals. Conflict resolution, both on your behalf and with others, is a set of skills that can actively be taught on a daily basis.

Responsible interaction with other people

All of these are parts of responsible interaction. Communication skills are key. How do your words affect other people? When can you be assertive in order to make your point? How do you get clarification when things aren’t understood?

Next week: Tech Tools for Deliberate Practice

What are some strategies that you’ve used to develop conative skills in your students? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

Want to go into even more depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Instructional Empowerment bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.

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