All posts by placheli

Food & Health in Senegal vs. the USA

Earlier this month, my wife and I took a remarkable trip to Senegal for about a week.  We visited Dakar, the capital, then Gorée Island, one of the most infamous sites of the slave trade, then Saly a small beach town about an hour south of Dakar.  But the most memorable parts of the trip were our three days with three Senegalese families studying their food culture.  The following reflections consider where Senegalese and American food systems are now, and may be headed, with lasting consequences for public health.

Dakar market merchant

Since fall 2017, Georgetown University Medical Center community health fellow, Dr. Melissa See, and I have been collaborating on research comparing the food cultures of three lower-income African American families in Washington DC with three lower-income Senegalese families in Dakar.  Combining observation, interviews plus photo and video data taken over several hours with each family, we are studying how these six families participating in Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) shop for, cook, and eat their food, and the meanings they attach to these practices (i.e., their food culture).  Dr. See is conducting the research with the three African American families while I conducted the research with the three families in Dakar with my wife’s able assistance.

Our hope is that this research will deepen our understanding of the diet-related challenges our CDI families face in living healthy lives in DC and Dakar.  This concern grows out of Learning Life’s turn toward community health as a focus of CDI work.  Health is fundamental, and it’s a serious concern in many lower-income communities worldwide.  Health also connects to so many forces — like culture, business, politics, and the environment –in interesting ways that can help us better understand our world.  (More on health, and particularly community health, in an upcoming post).

Antonia shops at central market

Food, in turn, is central to health, so studying food culture is helpful to identifying families’ health challenges and opportunities.  One of the most striking differences we’re finding in the food culture of the Senegalese and American families is in the processing, packaging.  Like many Americans, our CDI families in DC generally eat a lot of processed, packaged foods.  In contrast, the Senegalese families’ food we observed was on the whole far less processed and packaged.  Americans of all income brackets are typically used to shopping at supermarkets with lots of packaged, processed foods.  In Senegal, by contrast, there are far fewer supermarkets per capita.  When we went shopping with one of the Senegalese families, we went not to a supermarket but to an open air market with many merchants selling fruits, vegetables, meats, spices and many other foods, most minimally packaged, and unrefrigerated.

These striking contrasts do not necessarily mean one country has it better when it comes to food.  Americans might assume we have the best food system in the world, and ours is indeed among the best in food safety, abundance and affordability.  However, our mainstream diet of cheap, processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt — the sodas, chips, burgers, pizzas, donuts, cookies, cake, ice cream, etc. we eat in abundance — generate all kinds of widespread health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  The Senegalese diet is less varied, high in starch — mainly rice but also other cheap grains — and less safe due to lack of refrigeration and standardized food safety practices (e.g., cleaning, disinfecting, cooking at safely high temperatures).  Nonetheless, the Senegalese obesity rate is around 9% vs. 36% in the USA.  The Senegalese live much shorter lives on average than Americans — 62 vs. 80 years, respectively — but living longer does not necessarily mean living better.

Lunch of rice, chicken and vegetables

Many factors affect health and longevity: not just diet but activity levels, the number and quality of one’s relationships, air and water quality, housing conditions, transportation safety, crime levels, education levels, the availability and quality of health care resources like doctors, hospitals, parks and gyms, etc.  However, to the extent that our diets are central to our health, major food companies that sell processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar pose a serious threat to global health that often goes unrecognized.  Besides the obvious threats — fast food chains and convenience stores that market and sell cheap, tasty but unhealthy food products — the modern supermarket presents less recognized problems.  To their credit, supermarkets commonly sell fresh produce, even if there may not be many varieties of fruits and vegetables, and much of it may not be local or even domestic.  However, most other food aisles of any supermarket are filled disproportionately with processed foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar.  Why?  Such food is generally cheap to make, “shelf-stable” (lasts long without going bad), can be manipulated easily (new flavors, different quantities and types of ingredients) to cut costs and boost appeal, and tastes good to most consumers.  These are the main reasons why food companies sell processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Supermarket processed food

The abundance of packaging that envelopes many processed food products serves three key functions.  First, packaging is a vehicle for advertising to seek to distinguish the product, attract consumers and build “brand loyalty” (consumer loyalty to the company’s product or product line).  Second, governments often require companies to reveal certain information on their packaging, such as the ingredients in and nutritional content of their products.  Third, packaging helps preserve food products and protect them from contaminants in the environment.  Despite these functions, food company packaging is often excessive, and contributes substantially to resource waste, environmental pollution, and the world’s ever mounting trash heaps.

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind though is this: like most businesses under capitalism, the primary goal of food companies is not environmental health nor the public good, but profit.  This does not mean businesses are evil, but it does mean they are self-serving.  Furthermore, they are rationally single-minded and tireless in their pursuit of profit.  For these reasons, businesses, alone or in concert, tend be very powerful actors who do their best to shape resources, markets, laws and consumers to their profit-seeking ends.  This makes it hard to underestimate the extent to which the food cultures of Americans and other higher-incomes peoples are shaped by food companies.

Many of the healthiest foods — whole foods like apples, pineapple, carrots, broccoli, beans, nuts – require minimal processing, are not shelf-stable, cannot be easily manipulated, and do not taste as good to consumers because people are naturally drawn to foods high in salt, fat and/or sugar.  Hence, supermarkets grudgingly sell whole foods, but tend to make their best profits from packaged, processed foods.

Patisen processed food product

As the Senegalese and other peoples of developing nations increase their income, international food companies will be more attracted to them in search of profits, and they will bring their familiar fast food chains, convenience stores and supermarkets with them.  That will mean more processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar, and accordingly, more obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  Already, an ambitious Senegalese food company named Patisen is pervasive in homes, markets, and on street billboards in Dakar.  Further, Patisen is working to bring its line of sauces, spreads, condiments and drinks high in salt, fat and/or sugar to other West African countries, with the help of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.  The same trend is happening worldwide wherever incomes are rising, including much larger nations like India and China, where diets are becoming more processed, and diet-related diseases are consequently rising.

Nothing is inevitable, yet profit-seeking food businesses are powerful players whose answer to the diseases they help create are a plethora of processed “health” and “diet” food products that are not necessarily healthy, and are certainly not whole foods.  Fortunately, there are plenty of smart food critics writing influential articles and books (e.g., Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Michael Moss), a growing body of popular food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, Forks Over Knives), and encouraging socio-economic trends, like slow food, local food, organic food, farmers’ markets and urban gardening.  The secret to fighting the food industry giants may be more of this — reading, talking and acting locally and internationally for whole food diets and a healthier planet.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.


International Finance Corporation.  2011.  “IFC Invests in Senegal’s Agribusiness Sector.”  Retrieved April 1, 2018.

Central Intelligence Agency.  “Africa: Senegal.”  World Factbook.  Retrieved March 31, 2018.

Democratize Diplomacy!

Our world is growing more interconnected yet also seems more and more insecure, divided, and dangerous.   Improving incomes, transportation and communication have spurred international travel, trade and collaboration but also job flight, piracy, climate change and terrorism, among other problems.  Despite the uncertainty these developments bring, one thing is certain: international affairs increasingly impact us all, from the air we breathe, to the prices we pay, to the jobs we get.

For all the impact the wider world has on our lives, it can seem distant from our everyday preoccupations and face-to-face interactions.  Indeed, the less we know and connect with the wider world, the more irrelevant it can seem despite its increasing relevance to all our lives.  This paradox of perceived irrelevance and mounting relevance calls for democratizing diplomacy.

Diplomacy is simple to define — it is the management of international relations — but hard to do well, as any professional diplomat will readily note.  Diplomacy is difficult because there are many factors and forces — political, economic, religious, geographic, historical, etc. — including competing individual and group ambitions, and all are pieces in an evolving play that can change its focus at any moment.  This is often an argument for professionalizing rather than democratizing diplomacy.  The world’s complexity, the argument goes, calls for well trained and experienced diplomats who can skillfully negotiate the dizzying and potentially explosive mix of interests, cultures and personalities toward peaceful and mutually beneficial ends.  Amateur ignorance of that complex mix can at best offend, and at worst lead to war.

Professional diplomats are indeed essential for their skillful negotiation that can and has resolved crises, and fostered cooperation vital to international peace and prosperity.  However, professional diplomats are, at the end of the day, paid agents of their governments.  As such, they are first and foremost servants of government leaders, whether or not they like it, and whether or not those leaders’ interests align with those of their people, let alone the people of the world.  Diplomats may and often do promote international peace and cooperation, but only if it coincides with their national leaders’ interests.

Democratize Diplomacy!None of this is meant to condemn diplomacy, nor its professional practitioners.  Professional diplomacy is essential to international peace, justice and development, and countless diplomats put their lives at risk in service of these world goods, usually with little if any public recognition.  Nonetheless, I suspect that many if not most diplomats who work to advance these goods would agree that they could use some help not just from their governments (in the form of more staff, equipment, security, etc.), but also from their fellow citizens.

At its simplest, democratizing diplomacy means enlarging the circle of participation in diplomacy.  Whether professional diplomats like it or not, diplomacy experts explain that newer communication technologies (the internet, smart phones, social media, etc.) are already breaking the traditional near-monopoly of governments over diplomacy, giving ordinary people — individuals, networks and non-governmental organizations — more power in international relations (e.g., Grant 2005, Nye 2011).

As political scientist Joseph Nye notes, this widening of participation in international affairs can be for the better, or worse (Nye 2010).  For better, any motivated individual or organization with a cell phone or laptop and access to the internet and social media can now, for instance, expose government violence and corruption, or collaborate with others across the world in mutually beneficial ways.  For worse, any motivated person or group can photograph or video themselves burning a country’s flag or a religion’s sacred text, beating or killing a foreigner, or else.  Unfortunately, it’s always easier to burn than build a bridge, and empowering more people to communicate makes it far easier for ideologues and lunatics to destroy the long, patient work of bridge-building.

Simply widening participation in international affairs is thus clearly not enough.  Experts who advocate democratizing diplomacy though talk more about foreign policy authorities informing publics than about publics participating in diplomacy (e.g., Sachs 2016, Bessner & Wertheim 2017).  Greater dialogue between foreign policy experts and publics would, of course, be a positive development.  But those who attend such dialogues are likely to be more educated, if not themselves involved in foreign affairs, hence reinforcing the gulf between those engaged and disengaged with the world.

A broader public that better understands diplomacy, world geography, history, cultures, trends, problems, etc., better grasps the world’s relevance, and is more likely to call for and engage in diplomacy.  That understanding can be developed in schools, but schools shouldn’t be the only vehicles because they vary so much in their quality and pedagogical priorities.  Democratizing diplomacy can help, and citizen diplomacy is the vehicle.

In contrast with professional diplomacy — that is, paid diplomats’ management of international relations — citizen diplomacy entails citizen-to-citizen communication and collaboration across borders.  Professional diplomats frequently encourage citizen diplomacy if it advances their government’s foreign policy objectives.  “Public diplomacy” officers commonly bring together ordinary people from different countries to promote mutual goodwill and cooperation.  However, given that government leaders and their diplomatic agents are not always foremost committed to peace, justice and the welfare of their people, citizen diplomats need to maintain some independence from professional diplomats.  Watchful citizens active in independent political parties, non-government organizations and voluntary associations are better able than state-backed groups to hold their governments accountable.

In this vein, independent citizen diplomacy groups can help lead the democratization of diplomacy as they collaborate to advance international peace, justice and development.  Current examples of citizen diplomacy groups include the Model United Nations, Sister Cities International, Global Nomads Group, and iEARN.  At their best, such groups don’t just foster dialogue or travel, but educational, economic and political collaborations.  At their best, citizen diplomacy organizations also involve populations least likely to engage in diplomacy: the poor and those least connected to the wider world.  Poverty and disconnection don’t necessarily engender xenophobia.  But they breed ignorance, and ignorance is fuel for the xenophobia that attacks immigrants, neglects refugees, elects demagogues, and sows the seeds of war.

Thus, at its best, democratizing diplomacy means:

  1. Harnessing communication technologies to engage more people, especially the poor and those globally least connected, in diplomacy.
  2. Promoting not just dialogue and travel, but collaboration to advance transnational peace, justice and development.
  3. Cultivating and measuring progress in participants’ world knowledge, interests, skills and social ties via those cross-national collaborations.
  4. Encouraging the development of an independent citizen diplomacy sector composed of groups devoted foremost to international peace, justice and development rather than their country or government’s self-interest.
  5. Thinking and talking about how citizen diplomacy can ultimately lead to routine and meaningful yet independent citizen participation in international government.

Democratizing diplomacy is a vital step in advancing human freedom, understood not as individual license but as collective self-government.  The path to international government of, by and for the world’s peoples is clearly long.  But the rise of the United Nations and other international governmental bodies, progress in transport and communication technologies, and growing cross-national trade and cooperation in the last hundred years constitute important steps on that path.  Governments that fear their people and seek to control power and perceptions present formidable obstacles.  But governments that see their people as their greatest strength understand that democratizing diplomacy can help make their nation and the world more secure, just, and prosperous.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Bessner, Daniel, and Stephen Wertheim.  April 5, 2017.  “Democratizing U.S. Foreign Policy.”  Foreign Affairs.  

Grant, Richard.  2005.  “The Democratisation of Diplomacy: Negotiating with the Internet.”  Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and Antwerp University.

Melissen, Jan. 2005.  “The New Public Diplomacy:  Between Theory and Practice” in The New Public Diplomacy, ed. Jan Melissen.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nye, Joseph.  October 4, 2010.  “The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy.”  New York Times.  

Nye, Joseph.  2011.  The Future of Soft Power.  New York: Public Affairs.

Sachs, Jeffrey D.  December 21, 2016.  “The Democratization of U.S. Foreign Policy.”  The Nation.  

A Neighborhood Approach to International Diplomacy

In recent years, interest in international “virtual exchange” (IVE) or internet communication has grown as more people across the world are getting smart phones and laptops that give them access to the internet.  More schools and universities are getting in on the act, as are international organizations devoted to education and cultural exchange.  However, a lot of the IVE now going on has a participation problem.

Throughout human history, international affairs have largely been the province of a privileged few.  Travel is prohibitively expensive for most people.  Those able to travel abroad tend to have the discretionary income to do so, or they are employed or supported by organizations that allow them to travel.  This, of course, does not include refugees compelled to leave their homes due to violence, disaster or the threat thereof.  Nor does it include poor migrants compelled to leave their countries for lack of economic opportunity to support themselves and their families.

IVE opens up exciting opportunities to engage far more people in international affairs.  Yet most current virtual exchange happens between relatively privileged people.  In the realm of cultural and educational exchange, IVE tends to occur between students, classrooms, or social groups who have more resources (e.g., computers, high speed internet, projectors, skilled staff), and more interest in IVE precisely because they have more formal education and/or family experience with foreign affairs.

Further, because international virtual exchange is still uncommon, even within the more privileged half of societies, IVE organizations keen on reporting large numbers of exchanges, participants, and positive results from their exchanges to sustain and grow their funding, often have little financial interest to engage people lower down the socio-economic scale.

Engaging people with less formal education and little if any experience of foreign affairs does tend to be more difficult.  In Learning Life’s experience thus far with our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI), many of our lower-income families travel little within their city, let alone out of state or out of the country.  They also know little to nothing about foreign countries or peoples.  Indeed, many of the children with whom we work cannot geographically distinguish what is American and what is foreign.  That combination of inexperience and ignorance does not naturally spur any human being to want to learn more.  In brief, we tend to like what we know, not what we don’t know.

Compounding the challenge are the countless eye-catching commercial distractions — music videos, movies, TV shows, video games, etc. that trade in speed, violence, sex, and/or high drama to draw people into their profitable fictions.  That relentless commercial tidal wave makes it hard for any teacher to compete with the traditional, slow or static instruments for learning reality, local to global: sustained, deliberate conversation and the printed word.

CDI neighborhood approachBut our commitment to tackling inequality and innovating education does not incline us to take the easier road, working with more privileged people interested in IVE.  To reach the harder to reach though, we will be experimenting with a neighborhood approach.  Rather than recruit lower-income families from across a city, or wherever we can find them, we will focus recruitment on particular lower-income neighborhoods.  In doing so, we will cultivate connections with larger organizations with ties to those neighborhoods to bring more resources (funds, volunteers, information, meeting spaces, food, internet access, etc.) to bear on our work of nurturing global citizenship among lower-income families.

The potential benefits of a neighborhood approach are manifold.  The close, repeated social interaction that comes with focusing on specific neighborhoods can make it easier to connect with new families, gain their trust, share resources with them, and mobilize them for CDI dialogues and activities.  Working with neighboring rather than dispersed families can also occasion more beneficial “spillover” of newfound knowledge, skills and resources when families share what they gain through CDI with their neighbors.

A recent development in the relationship of two neighboring families participating in CDI illustrate this last point in what might be called a “virtuous neighborhood effect.”  These two families live about three blocks apart, yet might have never met if not for CDI.  At this point though, they have participated in about ten local learning activities (e.g., museum and restaurant visits) and international dialogues together.  That repeated interaction recently led John, the father of one family — unprompted by any of us at Learning Life — to invite Alex, the only son in the other family, to an all-day excursion at a local amusement park with John and his daughter, Joanne.  Alex, who often feels left out at home, loved it.  The parents in these two families have since exchanged telephone numbers, and are on a first-name basis.  John also plans to take Alex on more excursions in the future, and to teach him how to drive.  (Note: I use pseudonyms here to protect the privacy of the participants.)

This example has nothing yet to do with global citizenship, but more sharing and caring like this — a direct spillover effect of CDI — can help strengthen a neighborhood, and facilitate all kinds of collective goals, including global citizenship.  Social scientists call the sharing, caring and trust embodied in such connections “social capital.”  Research shows that individuals and communities rich in social capital tend to be healthier, safer, and more prosperous.

Neighborhood organizing for IVE and global citizenship is all the more important in lower-income neighborhoods, where there tends to be less social capital, that is, where neighbors tend to trust, care and share less.  And so, while other organizations pursue IVE with more privileged populations, Learning Life is purposefully taking the harder road, and moving toward a neighborhood approach as we begin with a few lower-income blocks in Ward 8, the poorest ward of Washington D.C., as well as with lower-income neighborhoods in other nations where we work.  We don’t expect quick results.  That’s why we’re in this for the long-term.  We will keep you posted as our neighborhood organizing progresses!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life

P.S. For more on our developing, locally-oriented approach, click here.

Watch: First Citizen Diplomacy Initiative Video!

Learning Life’s first short video about our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative is now out!  The short video (less than three minutes) features scenes from our live, international, family-to-family dialogues, and our developing photovoice project.

This video was put together by Andrew Jorgensen, a talented senior in film and video studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  Andrew is interning with Learning Life this spring semester, and will be producing more videos to showcase Learning Life’s CDI.  Stay tuned!

Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative engages lower-income American families in live internet dialogues and project collaborations with families in other nations to nurture informed, skilled, connected and caring global citizens.  Learn more here.

Inspirations for Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative

Citizen diplomacy is far from new, but Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) takes a fresh approach to this old form that draws on particular works for inspiration.

Diplomacy is the management of international relations.  Professional diplomats handle official diplomacy between nations, but citizens can also get involved in conspicuous or inconspicuous ways in what is known as “citizen diplomacy.”  Conspicuously, famous athletes, musicians and actors, like the basketball player Dennis Rodman, U2’s Bono and actress Angelina Jolie sometimes intercede in international issues, like nuclear proliferation, poverty, or violence against women, via widely reported statements, visits, productions, or events.  Often much less conspicuously, “ordinary” citizens get involved in international sport, travel, business, cultural or educational exchanges.  However, much of this citizen diplomacy is and has long been undertaken by relatively privileged middle and upper class people who have the social and material means to learn about and travel the world.

Fortunately, the spread of the internet, personal computers and smart phones has the potential to democratize diplomacy, that is, to concretely engage more people in international relations, for better or worse.  For worse, terrorists and computer hackers, for instance, can use these technologies to wreak international havoc for political purpose.  For better, “virtual exchange” or live dialogue via the internet has the great, and at this early stage largely untapped potential to nurture mutual understanding, trust and cooperation between people who have little to no connections outside their country, or even their local community.

Virtual exchange does not guarantee positive results though.  Much depends on its design.  To inspire and plan Learning Life’s CDI since late January this year, I have drawn on a number of readings, the most foundational of which are briefly discussed below with reference to CDI.

The Future of Power, by Joseph S. Nye

The Future of PowerHarvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye’s 2011 book, The Future of Power, lends Learning Life’s CDI an international context and significance.  In the book, Nye seeks to help prepare political leaders for exercising power in the 21st century, particularly the soft power of persuasion — based on a foreign policy widely respected, a culture people aspire to, and political values we live up to — in contrast with the “hard” powers of military and economic coercion.  Nye sees two power transitions occurring in international relations: a power shift among states increasing the power of countries like the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India and China),  and a power diffusion from national governments to non-state actors, whether this be Al-Qaeda, Avaaz, or Twitter.  The power shift among states is not new in human history, but power diffusion is.  The diffusion is to a great extent due to improvements in communication and transportation that increase the power of social networks.  

Accordingly, “[t]o be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to nonstate actors, government[s]…will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age and that social networks have become more important. To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command. Leaders need to think of themselves as being in a circle rather than atop a mountain. That means that two-way communications are more effective than commands” (Nye 2011: 161) and “empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals” (Nye 2011: 21). 

Nye’s book thus recognizes that growing numbers of non-state actors large and small, like Learning Life, are stepping into international relations, often as, or through social networks.  While despotic governments seek to control cross-border networks, Nye argues that open, democratic governments should “promote and participate in” these networks, so long as the latter seek to do good in the world (Nye 2010).

Connected Learning, by Mizuko Ito et al.

Connected LearningInequality has always existed, yet hundreds of millions of people across the world have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades due substantially to economic growth and trade.  Nonetheless, poverty is still widespread, and inequality is increasing as the fortunate few have grown much richer since at least the 1980s.  In this context, a group of scholars recently teamed up to answer the question: how can education be made to work for more people in a very unequal world?

The result is a 2013 paper on “connected learning” that both validates and inspires our approach with CDI.  “Connected learning addresses the gap between in-school and out-of-school learning, intergenerational disconnects, and new equity gaps arising from the privatization of learning. In doing so, connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities” (Mizuko et al. 2013: 4-5).  

Six principles define connected learning: it (1) is driven by students’ interests; (2) focuses on experimentation and producing things that nurture (3) lifelong academically-oriented skills and dispositions vital to success; taps into (4) peers as well as (5) parents, teachers and other caring adults (e.g., mentors and advisors) for feedback, contributions and/or guidance in learning; and (6) forges an “openly networked” learning environment by linking school, home and community, and taking advantage of the internet to access information, fellow learners, and other resources.  Learning Life’s CDI follows this connected learning approach by:

(1) involving lower-income parents in their children’s learning through international family-to-family dialogues
(2) tapping into the internet (email, Skype, browsers) to work with interested youth, families and organizations worldwide
(3) focusing our international dialogues on accomplishing projects that yield skill-enhancing and resume-building products  
(4) mobilizing caring adults as volunteer mentors, project consultants and language interpreters

The result is a novel approach to learning that empowers lower-income families through dialogues and projects linking the local to the global.

The Importance of Non-Cognitive Factors

Giving Kids a Fair ChanceA now large number of studies (e.g., Farrington et al. 2012, Pellegrino & Hilton 2012) point to the importance of non-cognitive factors, whether these be skills, strategies, attitudes or behavioral dispositions — like conscientiousness, motivation, deferred gratification, perseverance, time management, sociability, teamwork, curiosity, help-seeking — to success in school, work and life.  The non-cognitive factors contrast with cognitive content knowledge in particular fields, like math, engineering, computer science, political science, or literature.  Cognitive knowledge is less associated with success, though as I have previously noted, it is associated with better memory, comprehension and problem-solving.  

Among the scholars who have conducted research on non-cognitive factors, Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman looms large.  Heckman, who specializes in the economics of human development, offers compelling evidence that non-cognitive factors like those mentioned above, or what he calls “character,” matter more than performance on academic tests (Heckman, Humphries & Kautz 2014).  Further, he provides evidence that early investment in character-building as well as cognition not only in youth but parents and communities can improve graduation rates, health, employment, and reduce crime and incarceration in the long term (Heckman 2013).       

Heckman’s work, and the larger literature on the importance of non-cognitive factors informs our focus on developing character — particularly kindness, openness, tolerance, perseverance, curiosity, personal growth, and helping others — through international dialogue, collaborative projects and explicit discussion of these character traits.  Our ultimate goal is to nurture more informed, skilled, connected and caring global citizens, yet we do not expect such citizens to develop in weeks or months, but years.  Learning Life thus envisions working long-term with particular families in a gradually growing number of communities worldwide.

These are the works that inform and inspire CDI’s approach.  I encourage readers working to make our world a better place to look deeper into these works.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Farrington, Camille A., Melissa Roderick, Elaine Allensworth, Jenny Nagaoka, Tasha Seneca Keyes, David W. Johnson, and Nicole O. Beechum.  2012.  “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners. The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review.”  Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Heckman, James.  2013.  Giving Kids a Fair Chance.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Heckman, James, John E. Humphries and Tim Kautz.  2014.  The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, S. Craig Watkins.  2013.  “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.”  Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Nye, Joseph S.  2010.  “The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy.”  The New York Times, October 4.

Nye, Joseph.  2011.  The Future of Soft Power.  New York: Public Affairs.    

Pellegrino, James W. and Margaret L Hilton.  2012.  Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.  Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.