Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer asks ‘non-cognitive skills: what are they, and why now?’

Have you ever heard the word ‘cognitive’ used to describe a particular process of thinking and learning and wondered: what exactly do humans do that doesn’t require some aspect of cognition? Why do we talk about ‘non-cognitive’ at all?

In fact distinguishing between cognitive- and non-cognitive ‘skills’ is not necessarily clear cut, largely because the field of intelligence research has been a contested one over the years. Eminent psychologist and psychometrician Robert Sternberg wrote of intelligence, that in order to know what place it has in preparing for lifelong learning and success:

…our society needs a broad and principled understanding of just what is meant by intelligence and a principled way of determining just what criteria an ability must pass to be viewed as part of intelligence.

It is helpful, therefore, if we can define ‘non-cognitive’ skills before we try and instill them into young people. A report by the Education Endowment Foundation and Cabinet Office looked at their impact. It says that ‘non-cognitive skills’

refers to a set of attitudes, behaviours and strategies that are thought to underpin success in school and work, such as motivation, perseverance, and self-control.

These are thus important skills. They relate to integrity and interpersonal interaction. Yet they have not been measured by conventional intelligence tests in the past. Encouragingly, however, the OECD note that recent research has constructed measures of these skills and, importantly: “provided evidence that they are stable across institutions and predict meaningful life outcomes” . From the examples they provide, it is not hard to see why such skills are so important for success, both in and out of school:

perseverance (‘grit’), conscientiousness, self-control, trust, attentiveness, self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience to adversity, openness to experience, empathy, humility, tolerance of diverse opinions and the ability to engage productively in society.

In contrast, ‘cognitive skills’ are those ‘hard’ intellectual capacities that are associated with IQ tests. On the whole, they involve conscious intellectual effort, though some are more intuitive. These may be learned through time and practice and now brought to bear without conscious thought.

Cognitive skills include things like thinking, reasoning, remembering (procedures, lists, and ‘gists’), attending (for example filtering out distractions), language (listening, comprehension, formulation) , and motor skills (hand-eye coordination, fine /gross motor). Bloom’s classification (here, for example) provides a fuller list of behaviours related to cognitive skills in the area of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

But while ‘cognitive’ skills are required to analyse a poem, balance an equation, or interpret data, are we really saying that academic subjects require greater mental processing, whether conscious or unconscious? Or that they don’t require ‘non-cognitive’ skills? Or that non-cognitive skills don’t require mental processing? No. Non-cognitive is a poor description of the types of skills and attitudes important for success at school, as well as at work and in life. Reasoning, hypothesising, and criticising might have a more natural fit with academic subjects, but by labeling such skills as ‘cognitive’, we duly subordinate the less academic subjects.

It is gratifying to see this thought process articulated eloquently elsewhere. Camille Farrington and colleagues argue that noncognitive is an unfortunate word. I would suggest that the same might apply to ‘soft’ skills. They say:

It reinforces a false dichotomy between what comes to be perceived as weightier, more academic “cognitive” factors and what by comparison becomes perceived as a separate category of fluffier “noncognitive” or “soft” skills. As others have pointed out, contrasting cognitive and noncognitive factors can be confusing because “few aspects of human behaviour are devoid of cognition”… In reality, these so-called cognitive and noncognitive factors continually interact in essential ways to create learning…

These sorts of skills or factors, or however we might choose to label them, are receiving much scrutiny at present. Why are non-cognitive skills so in demand now? As the Education Endowment Foundation’s report observed “there is now growing attention from policymakers on how such ‘character’ or ‘soft’ skills can be developed in children and young people”.

We are told often that the needs of the marketplace are, increasingly, such that young people need more than mere subject knowledge and good exam results. Maybe such things were taken for granted as previous generations came through their education, lived through various conflicts, booms, busts, and social changes. Certainly our grandparents did not need to be told to endure hardship. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” was perhaps their motto. But maybe some of these important skills were just not so critical in the past.

But today things are different. What once took a lifetime of experience to learn (if indeed it was necessary in the past), now has to be imparted to young people in earnest as they prepare to venture out into a world in flux. To put this into perspective, listen to ethnographer Richard Sennett’s observation on the life of a typical US blue-collar worker of the last century in The Corrosion of Character. What struck Sennett most about this generation was:

how linear time was in their lives: year after year of working in jobs which seldom varied from day to day. And along that line of time, achievement was cumulative. [They] checked the increase in their savings every week, measured their domesticity by the various improvement and additions they had made to their… house. Finally, the time they lived was predictable. The upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II had faded, unions protected their jobs; though he was only forty when I first met him, [he] knew precisely when he would retire and how much money he would have

While it is the young people of today employers lose sleep over, this does not mean that older members of the workforce had these skills from their education alone, if at all. We cannot assume that something vital has been gradually eroded from our education system over the past twenty years or so, such that soft skills once valued are no longer learned.

Although neither can we rule out that possibility. Maybe something has been so suddenly lacking in the education of our young people for perhaps the last twenty years or more, that skills of a bygone era have been lost. Has something gone wrong at the policy level? I imagine many would agree that pupils today are subjected to a constant treadmill of assessment and certification. Their learning is so focused on passing exams that they are being ‘taught’ (in the narrow sense), but little room is left over for their ‘education’, in a much broader sense.

Maybe. But it may also be supposed that those leaving education in years gone by have had to learn through experience – since their education – the necessary skills in order to thrive in today’s society. And this will of course include those longest-serving in today’s workforce and the retired. So while this topic may seem a little patronising to preceding generations of school leaver, who no doubt consider themselves to possess determination, integrity, and other hallmarks of a good character, it is nevertheless true that more people are paying attention to the need for non-cognitive skills to be developed in the formative years of schooling nowadays. Because time and experience is what today’s young people do not have.

Certainly the spotlight is on soft skills at the level of education research and policy. It is vital that we are thinking about the collection of critical skills that will help young people navigate successfully the particular industries and enterprises of the 21st century.

And at least in part, non-cognitive skills are needed by young people whose competition is not only one another, but also competition in the labour market from older candidates, as observed by UK Commission for Employment and Skills in their 2014 Employer Skills Survey . Again: young people do not have the luxury of time and experience. Input is needed to help them gain a competitive edge in their formative education.

Employers want to see these non-cognitive skills re-addressed for employability. Good teachers want to provide pupils with appropriate learning opportunities to benefit both their schooling and their prospects. Not only this, but non-cognitive factors (skills plus strategies, attitudes and behaviours) are of intrinsic value in their own right.

In terms of employability; this means that the individual has the flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of the market and/or society throughout their lifetime. In the global economy, institutions “don’t reward people who have become very attached to doing one thing”. In his his 2006 paper What Do We Mean By TalentRichard Sennett argued that with the advent of ‘flexible capitalism’, no longer were we in a

skill-based society, in which skills were concrete practices, and the more skilled you got, and the more experienced you became in exercising these skills, the more value you had and the higher up you rose

To veterans of the workforce, this is known intrinsically. Momentary crises of confidence: “when will they realise I’m just winging it?”, are rationalised by the experienced worker, who realises he is utilised as much for his emotional intelligence and tacit knowledge as for his professional qualifications and technical proficiency.

But for young people, non-cognitive skills need to be taught. Thus, we need to address them in our education policy if we are thinking about educating young people for work. In an Economic Policy Institute briefing, Emma Garcia (2014) writes that they should be “an explicit pillar of education policy”. And not surprisingly, I agree!

The Centre for Real-World Learning’s research into character and employability for the City & Guilds Alliance – Learning to be employable – will be published later this year.


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