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Cognitive Capital: Investing in Teacher Quality

reviewed by Carmen Elinor James - April 11, 2014

coverTitle: Cognitive Capital: Investing in Teacher Quality
Author(s): Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, & Diane P. ZImmerman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754978, Pages: 144, Year: 2013
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Cognitive Capital is a manifesto for a little understood and highly important phenomenon: the cognitive power of teachers. The book rests on the belief that with an understanding of the development a teacher’s cognitive capacity and the factors allowing for its flourishing, educators can improve teacher education and education writ large.


The book begins by introducing “Teacher Quality: A Declaration.” This declaration, reminiscent of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, enunciates truths the authors believe must be upheld to support the flourishing of a teacher’s cognitive capital. The emphasis of the declaration is on the culture and climate (including leadership) necessary for teaching and learning. Spanning a wide landscape of considerations, the declaration addresses the complexity of education. Part of this complexity is the relationship between individual cognitive capital and collective capital; that is, the assumption that by developing the individual teacher, educational leaders and institutions strengthen the whole community of education. Complexity, when it comes to individual minds and collective powers, is not to be avoided but embraced and understood. These premises of the declaration set the stage for the change the authors hope to bring about in education.

The authors base their entire conception on the simple belief that schools must be homes for the mind. By this I take them to mean that schools must be places where teachers, students and leaders feel safe and supported in the growth and development of their cognitive capacity. With this belief in hand, the book proceeds to question a wide range of assumptions, policies and practices in education, such as the movement towards standardization, teacher assessment and rubrics for evaluation.

Chapter One, Investing in Teacher Quality, lays out the book’s project in greater detail. It sets out to understand the relationship between the school and the teacher, between external knowledge and “the teacher’s internal maps and mental modes of teaching and learning” (p. 6). The second chapter, Assessing the Complexities of Teaching, focuses on illuminating the role that a teacher’s individual experience can play in their teaching practice—and the implications of this dynamic for theories of practice (with a special emphasis on the Common Core).

Chapter Three, Toward a New Conception of Value, goes into the nuts and bolts of building cognitive capital. Chapter Four, Balancing the Leadership Portfolio: The Meditative Functions of Coaching and Facilitating, and Chapter Five, Mediating: Conversations That Liberate States of Mind, look at how to build coaches, or mediators. The authors develop a framework for leaders that addresses ways to build cognitive collective capital in an institution. The framework consists of four parts, “the meditative responses, coaching and facilitating, and the informative responses, consulting and presenting” (p. 6). Chapter Six, Balancing the Leadership Portfolio: Presenting and Consulting, examines the benefits that school leaders will reap when they invest in cognitive capital and, more specifically, job-embedded learning. Chapter Seven, Accumulating the Dividends of Collective Thinking, looks at the collective benefits of cognitive capital. Chapter Eight, Auditing: Promoting Systems of Accountability, undertakes the question of accountability in institutions of education and the ways that institutions can maximize the benefits of the cognitive capital they have spent years investing in.


The success of Cognitive Power is its support for the work of the teacher and the kinds of resources, time and leadership required by educational institutions to support and grow the teacher’s power to educate. In this sense, the book is a call to justice with the opening declaration. The tone is especially relevant as the future of education conjures images of teachers as robots, data-driven teacher assessment, and more generally the movement of educational technology displacing the teacher in the classroom and the allure of standardization. These are not fears for everyone, but for many educators, especially teachers, they are real fears. The authors of this book extol the power of teachers to bring about transformational teaching by understanding, developing, and leveraging the unique cognitive powers of the teachers that have been the driving force of education for centuries.

What makes the difference between a good teacher and great one “is how teachers design, critique and revise teaching to optimize learning for students” (p. 2), the authors state in the first chapter, “Investing in Teacher Quality.” To cultivate a great teacher requires cognitive coaches, a role that is the authors’ response to the reality that teaching is too complex to be evaluated, and even “the most skilled evaluators can struggle . . . with, among other things, how to advise, what to focus on and what to ignore” (p. 3). More important than its ineffectiveness, the teacher evaluation process does not provide teachers with the feedback and information needed to improve their teaching.

The authors based their coaching recommendations upon five states of mind: “efficacy (which generates effort), flexibility (expanded repertoire), craftsmanship (evokes fidelity), consciousness (informs improvement), and interdependence (grows intelligence)” (p. xiii). They aim for the states of mind to direct the goals of pre-and post conference discussion, which should be a time when “teaching cognition [is] mediated through positive relationships and linguistic moves” (p. 5) (which I take to mean the focus on language and attitude needed for effective coaching).

The shift away from evaluation to coaching requires buy-in from administrators. A substantial part of the book is dedicated to understanding how leaders can become coaches, too. In taking this approach, the authors reject the kind of accountability that has become so popular in educational policy from districts to cities to states to the federal government today. In its place they demand the kind of conference discussion cited above as the foundation of accountability, specifically of a kind of accountability that will grow cognitive capacity in teachers by allowing for growth, continued professional development, and learning.

The authors are careful to define terms and concepts, which is a useful aspect of the book since they pull from a wide range of disciplines and a host of metaphors. Some definitions to hang our hat on: human capital “is the quality of the individual, social capital is the quality of the group, and decisional capital is the cumulative insights of learning through experience to acquire expert judgment relative to one’s craft” (p. xiii).  Cognitive capital “is what goes on in the teacher’s head” (p. 6). Dialogue is “discourse that seeks to illuminate the truth through various perspectives” (p. 2).


Costa, Garmston and Zimmerman have crafted a timely and well focused book from their own professional and life experiences. Their case is well presented, and there is little doubt that with increased research in metacognition, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, the kinds of neural pathways and patterns of second order thinking that give agency to individuals to transform their lives will be of increased interest in the coming years.

As the authors highlight, the project is not just for the transformation of the individual, but of interdependent and collective practice as well: “Capital has no value unless it lives in a shared economy” (p. xviii).  They also write, “By investing in cognitive capital we mean that school leaders can function like wealth managers” (p. 6). “Just as a nation is judged by its degree of wealth—its gross domestic product, consumer confidence, productivity, balance of payment, and income and debt—so too might it be judged on its cognitive capital” (p. 7). They then say, “In this book we make a metaphorical bridge from financial capital to cognitive capital as we discuss how to invest in human intellect and get returns from those investments” (p. 6). The choice of metaphor will be, for many educators, quite jarring, and even more so when placed alongside other sentences with a whole different range of metaphors such as “homes for the mind.” The project of understanding the ability and unique experiences of teachers to teach, and the rejection of standardization and blind blanket teacher assessment strategies, seems to run in direct opposition to describing education as an economic model.

Setting aside the question of why the authors chose to use the word capital in an economic sense in a book on improving teaching, their project in its essential argument about what teachers need for genuine growth reveals that capital is in fact not the name of the game. The authors say it is their project to “make the world, and particularly schools, more thoughtful and contemplative, focusing on how humans grow and learn through structured, mediative experiences” (p. 1). Their statement here seems to focus on intellectual and ethical, philosophical and spiritual questions, while their use of capital seems to suggest an economic system of gains and losses. Their original claim, that schools are homes of the mind and teachers are the unique and generative forces in those homes, has a powerful hold. Developing this project with case studies and changing the vocabulary to emphasize the book’s greatest strengths would help readers to understand their project at a deeper level.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 11, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17498, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:16:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Carmen James
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    CARMEN ELINOR JAMES is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Philosophy and Education Program. She also holds a Masters degree from the same program. Her research focus is on the pedagogical and ethical habits of teachers and reflective and metacognitive practices in schools. She has presented at the The Second International Theorising Education Conference (2012), the Academy for Education Studies 2010 Critical Questions in Education Conference, the Middle Atlantic States Philosophy of Education Society Annual Meeting and the Graduate Student Conference On Philosophy and Education (GSCOPE). Carmen has worked in the public and private sector. While working at Riverdale Country Day School, she helped with the design thinking toolkit for educators in collaboration with IDEO. She headed a team there to support teachers creative confidence and permission to fail in design thinking and technology integration. Carmen has developed tools for teachers, led workshops and supported research and development in schools. She is especially interested in developing metacognition, character and critical thinking in students and teachers. She completed her undergraduate degree at Harvard University, majoring in Comparative Literature. She currently teaches at Teachers College and works doing research and development for the EdLab, the innovation in education lab at Teachers College.
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