‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

This article originally appearing in TES, 26th November 2015.
 Genetics and Plomin
The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds.

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to “keep everyone in their place”, it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic “castes” resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to “develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them”.

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with “smart” and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as “reared apart”, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some “separated” twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the “massively flawed and environmentally confounded” studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, “the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist”. While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that “it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge“.

SSGAC’s initial “genome wide association study” looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, “are maddeningly small”.

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester


Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer looks at the link between anxiety and creativity and asks: how can we strike a healthy balance?

The label ‘neurotic’ is not a particularly flattering one although, as we will see, it can have implicit positive aspects. Perhaps because of the neurotic nature of so many of the world’s contributors to science and the arts, creativity is often an associated trait. Behind the stereotypically ‘brooding, tortured, genius’ may hide a highly creative individual with the ability to solve problems. Or write sonnets!

There are logical as well as research demonstrated reasons why this should be so. Cause and effect are a little more complex to pin down, however.

As a personality trait, neuroticism is characterised by negative emotional states like anxiety, fear, frustration, and envy. It is contrasted with the ‘stable’ trait (although it should not be confused with neurosis, which is a class of mental disorders). Neurotic individuals are those scoring highly on psychometric tests for the trait.

Although personality traits are tendencies, expansive educators believe that aspects of them can be cultivated as learnable habits. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, personality traits can change even in adulthood.

A number of positive behaviours can be emergent from neurotic tendencies toward anxiety. Because of this characteristic, we might think of neurotics as being more likely to be:

  • diligent (as they double check things for correctness)
  • practical (maybe they are less likely to inflate predictions of success, and more likely to predict potential problems), and
  • reliable (as they worry about letting others down).

In a similar way, neuroticism has links with creativity through some of the behaviours it can lead to. For example, neurotic individuals are typically more able to problem-solve (a particular measure of creativity) than their less angst-prone colleagues.

To some degree, various behaviours associated with neuroticism can be beneficial for health as well as creativity. There is such a thing as ‘healthy neuroticism’! A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center found a positive relationship between neuroticism, health, and conscientiousness: one of the Big 5 traits. In an earlier blog post on character, I mentioned the Big 5 personality traits including

  • stability (neuroticism’s opposite)
  • openness (creative, curious, broad-minded)
  • extraversion (outgoing, friendly, talkative)
  • agreeableness (helpful, warm, sympathetic), and
  • conscientiousness (organised, responsible, hardworking)

Presence of both neuroticism and conscientiousness was associated with better health in this study. Under certain circumstances then, we might conclude that neuroticism can be good for health.

The research team looked at the presence of a particular immune protein associated with certain chronic health conditions such as heart disease. Significantly, they found that higher levels of neuroticism were related to lower levels of inflammation when conscientiousness was also higher.

In terms of cause and effect? The research team wondered whether the conscientiousness of ‘healthy neurotics’ might lead them to be (a) hyper vigilant about health symptoms needing attention, and (b) less likely to engage in certain health damaging behaviours such as smoking and heavy drinking in the first place.

The term ‘healthy neurotic’ was coined by Howard Friedman in 2000. Friedman noted the vast amount of evidence that well-adjusted, socially stable, well-integrated people are at significantly lower risk of disease because of their behaviours:

This is not because there is a disease-prone personality with simple, direct links to ill health, but rather primarily because certain people wind up with unhealthy habits and behaviors… (p.1103)

Not only are these individuals healthier, it’s not hard to see how people exhibiting higher levels of conscientiousness and neuroticism might be more likely to be organised, goal-oriented, good at planning, and reflective. In other words: ‘high functioning’.  Nicholas Turiano, heading up the study commented that:

These people are likely to weigh the consequences of their actions, and therefore their level of neuroticism coupled with conscientiousness probably stops them from engaging in risky behaviors.

A new paper, published by King’s College psychologist Adam Perkins and colleagues, sheds more light. Perkins does not look at the conscientiousness trait. Instead, he develops a ‘mechanistic neurocognitive account’ – a kind of cause and effect explanation – that links neuroticism and creativity by describing mental processes. In particular, one called ‘self-generated thought’.

People with neurotic tendencies worry more. They ruminate on problems in a way that verges on fretting. The very act of thinking in this way, however, can help produce solutions to problems. Perkins tells us that there is some experimental evidence linking neuroticism to creativity via the problem solving benefits of rumination related processes, such as worrying.

This is where self-generated thought comes in. Neurotic people tend to

  • be more sensitive to perceiving threats from the environment
  • experience negative states of mind even when there is no actual threat
  • have negative thoughts and feelings of an apparently abstract nature because they tend to think beyond the current situation
  • come up with more original solutions to abstract problems.

Neuroticism is caused by (possibly genetic) brain circuitry factors that lead to an extreme proneness to engage in negatively-hued self-generated thoughts. This is, essentially, a hyperactive imagination that works irrespective of actual threats in the environment.

Just like the creative individual, the neurotic individual has a proclivity for prolonged, self-generated rumination. But it is the negative slant on the thoughts of the neurotic individual that makes him or her neurotic. And it is the high levels of self-generated thought that cause neurotics to experience negative thoughts (emotions / psychological states) even in the absence of a threat stimulus.

‘Stable’ creative individuals tend to ruminate (and thereby come up with creative solutions). So do neurotic individuals. But neurotic people are, on balance, more creative than your average. Why should this be so? We know that neurotic brains are wired to dwell on even non-existent threats; to be more prone to negative toned self-generated thought. So when neurotics ruminate, their thinking develops in a negative way, which itself is a vehicle for creative problem-solving.

Creative solutions to do not arise in a vacuum. Creativity is often more about ‘perspiration than inspiration’. Self-generated thought occurs when the mind wanders to areas apparently unrelated to the current environment. It is not necessarily intentional. Yet these wanderings – or daydreams – are based on prior experience. When individuals engage in self-generated thoughts, they experience the freedom to bring existing knowledge to bear on current problems, such as making sense of who they are and deciding what to do next. Thus, the process of self-generated thought provides a means by which exposure to a stimulus brings about patterns of thinking that help make sense of the world. Or, importantly, that leads to creative solutions.

The mind-wanderings of the neurotic individual are more conducive to creative problem solving because they, naturally, dwell on problems. And, says Perkins,

a key feature of creative thought is the ability to generate solutions to problems that are distinct from the traditional way the problem is solved (p. 493).

Want to be more creative? Learn to harness your anxiety! We have all tapped into the motivating energy of anxiety at times. Anxiety drives school children to study for exams, technicians to be alert, supervisors to improve their people skills, and scientists or executives to innovate. Embed from Getty ImagesA healthy neurotic harnesses their natural levels of anxiety in positive ways. These techniques can be applied by anyone and might include:

  • Keeping the ‘big picture’ in mind. Worrying about the right things that will contribute to your overall goal. Don’t ‘major on minor issues’!
  • Mulling over worthwhile problems for longer and in more depth
  • Taking a deep breath to prevent overwhelming emotions taking over. Making use of motivating emotions rather than being suffocated by them
  • Pausing at times of anxiety to ask ‘why do I feel this way?’, ‘do I need to take some action?’
  • Being dogged in pursuit of a solution
  • Recognising when your own default internal mental processes are pushing you to panic and grasp opportunities instead of running from them
  • Practising self-discipline
  • Releasing tension in healthy ways, such as relaxation or exercise. Not depending on substances as an outlet.
  • Pursuing a problem… and then take a break to allow your mind to work subconsciously. Studies have shown the importance of daydreaming but unconscious thought only works effectively if there is enough raw material for the mind to join together!

While we are still a long way from being able to explain neuroticism fully, its associated behaviours clearly have some creative benefits.

Neuroticism’s significance for creativity might well come from a tendency to overthink. Knowing this, expansive educators can ponder how they might help develop the habits of those with neurotic tendencies, as well as those without.

Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer – Towards a universal understanding of soft skills?

It’s so important: employers recognise it; educators recognise it; parents recognise it. Yet it is shrouded in jargon and cliché. We have so many overlapping words for ‘it’: employability skills; soft skills; wider skills for learning; non-cognitive skills; performance virtues. Yet we don’t really have a language that we can use to converse in a meaningful way where understanding is truly shared.

While few would deny the vital nature of ‘soft skills’ (a loaded term if ever there was one) to employment, the phrase itself – when translated to the classroom – tends to be associated with ‘fluffy’ teaching; seen as the poor cousin of academic knowledge. The teaching of ‘it’ brings less esteem than the teaching of subjects. Maybe it is seen as the agenda of those ‘progressive educators’ who, rumour has it, want to remove subject knowledge from the curriculum and instead replace it with well-being and all things pupil-led.

This said, the last six months in politics has begun to lead to a re-think in some attitudes towards what is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’ in learning. In a positive commentary on this movement of opinion, Fiona Millar in the Guardian notes Sir Anthony Seldon’s suggestion that we make a virtue out of ‘happiness’. This suggestion stems from serious issues like “unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among pupils” and, of course, the impacts such concerns have on the capabilities of those same pupils once they head out into the wider world.

Various organisations promote ‘character education’ as part of the solution; an increasingly popular move to develop ethical, engaged citizens (The Character Education Partnership) democratic citizenship and civil society (The Center for Character and Citizenship) or human flourishing (The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues). But what is it that character education teaches?

For Richard Sennett, ‘character’ is clear. It is outward looking; not inward, like personality, “which concerns desires and sentiments which may fester within, witnessed by no one else”. Character, in the ‘old-school’ sense is

“the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others”. It “concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others”.

It cannot, therefore, be instrumental. We don’t have character just to achieve some goal; we have character to be valued for having character.

By unfortunate irony, the very reason that our young people need character more than ever is to succeed in a modern world that has eroded society’s ability to instil character into individuals through the natural progression of their lives. Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character is a remarkably insightful observation into this situation in which he states:

How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about character posed by the new, flexible capitalism. (p. 10)

To circumvent this issue, there is a growing trend to separate out character into ‘performance’ and ‘moral’. Sometimes the ‘moral’ is removed, lest it be seen to make value judgments of the religious kind, although studies across cultures reveal the universality of core ethical values (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). And also perhaps because, as Sennett observes: “the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character” in the true sense of the word.

Thus, it is performance character – and there is a growing consensus on this – that is of particular interest to politicians, employers, and education researchers.

But just as non-cognitive and cognitive skills are hard to prize apart, judgement is required to sift through ‘performance’ and ‘moral’ personal characteristics. Integrity is an example. The following quote is attributed to businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, perhaps the 20th century’s most successful inventor:

I look for three qualities in hiring people. Integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first then the last two will kill you, because if they don’t have integrity you want them dumb and lazy. 

Surely, if any characteristic would fit the label ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’, and yet also be of great significance for performance in the world of work, then integrity is it. It could be argued that it both “enables us to be our best ethical selves in relationships and in our roles as citizens” and also “to achieve… our highest potential in any performance context” to use the Character Education Partnership’s respective descriptions of ‘moral’ and ‘performance’ character.

In Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and integrity in business (1992), Robert Soloman argues that capitalism as an institution cannot ultimately tolerate a model of business that ignores the traditional virtues of responsibility, community, and integrity. CEO Amy Rees Anderson gives entrepreneurs pause for thought with her statement that “success will come and go, but integrity is forever” in an article of the same title. Amy similarly champions ‘respect’ as a value absolutely critical for success and, again, would we call this a moral virtue, or a performance virtue?

The Character Education Partnership published a position paper laying out its view of education that recognises the importance of performance character (needed for best work) as well as moral character (needed for ethical behaviour) stating that:

While core ethical values remain foundational in a life of character, character education must also develop students’ performance values such as effort, diligence, and perseverance in order to promote academic learning, foster an ethic of excellence, and develop the skills needed to act upon ethical values.

The position paper acknowledges that the two elements are ‘aspects’ rather than distinct ‘parts’ of character. And because they form a conceptual framework they are, by nature, open to interpretation.

So what terminology should we use when debating the non-cognitive skills for employment? Is ‘values’ helpful? Character ‘virtues’ may be a useful phrase, for example, while ‘trait’ is perhaps too ‘fixed’ a characteristic. ‘Employability skills’ has a certain ring to it, although may easily be used to describe things that are not the things we are talking about.

Do we even need a shared language? The Confederation of British Industry, a big player in this debate would say Yes. Arguing that the new national curriculum’s focus on promoting spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils is not enough, their end of year report proposed that

We need a clear statement of outcomes which incorporates the behaviours and attitudes that the school system should develop in young people. We also need an accountability framework and inspection regime which incentivises schools to deliver these agreed outcomes. (p. 3)

The CBI uses language like ‘determined’, ‘optimistic’, and ’emotionally intelligent’ to describe the young people it wants our education system to cultivate. Are these universally desirable, or do different categories of user identify different non-cognitive skills? For example, could it be argued that private, public, and ‘third’ sector hold broadly different values, such that a common core of ‘skills’ does not exist? In Wider Skills for Learning Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argued that the plethora of approaches to wider skills are frequently ‘wish lists’, betraying the underlying aspirations of their authors. Not only this; they are generally incoherent such that they would not stand up to psychometric scrutiny.

Needless to say, there is a whole array of classifications for soft-skills with complementary and overlapping labels. While we might concede that different groups of users may have varying rationale for using different labels, or for having different lists within those same labels, it is true that we can’t compare, or measure, if we don’t even try to find common ground.

In the realm of social science, are there any certainties? Well, soft skills are said to predict success (and to be in part responsible for it) later in life (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). Most notably, ‘conscientiousness’, which is tendency to be persevering and hardworking, stands out as the most predictive of the Big Five across many outcomes. These Five are a taxonomy of personality traits relatively well-accepted by psychologists: emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness.

As a trait, conscientiousness encompasses a number of factors: grit and self-control included. These two are the focus of Angela Duckworth, eminent psychologist, whose work examines these two traits that predict achievement. But the Education Endowment Foundation reportThe Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People’ concludes that although these both correlate strongly with outcomes, they may be more alike to stable personality traits than to malleable skills.

Ultimately, that report finds that there is no single non-cognitive skill that predicts long-term outcomes. Rather key skills are inter-related and need to be developed in combination with one another. Here, we return full circle to character. As Richard Sennett wrote:

Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. (p. 10)

When mere creation of wish lists of desirable qualities leaves much to be desired perhaps it is, ultimately, character that we need. Or ‘excellence’; the approach Ron Berger takes to developing learners’ inner compass for success.

Lucas and Claxton end Wider Skills for Learning with the recommendation that

we are convinced that real progress in developing ways of cultivating the wider skills of learning and creativity will be hampered unless we insist on speaking and thinking in terms of dispositions and habits of mind, rather than merely of skills. (p. 31)

We, as a society must work out what dispositions, or ‘habits’, we value. And, maybe more importantly, work out why we value them. After all, is the term ‘performance virtue’ not rather a cynical one if we aim to develop it for instrumental means (how it can benefit me) rather than for its own sake (how I can benefit others)?  What we need are ‘employability habits’ that take character as their starting point.

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.

Additional references:

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and classification New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press

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.