‘New blog – An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education’

An open letter to Damian Hinds MP

damien Hinds

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your new appointment from all of us at The Expansive Education Network.

We hope very much that you will wish to combine your passion for creating chances for all young people to excel with a desire to ensure that schools focus on much more than academic success.

Putting character and capabilities back into education

In 2014 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility which you once chaired reminded us that children who come from the least disadvantaged contexts need to develop some key capabilities if they are to thrive.

As your committee put it:

Research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts. People who overcome adversity and realise their full potential tend to exhibit many of these traits. In simple terms, these traits can be thought of as a belief in one’s ability to achieve, an understanding of the relationship between effort and reward, the patience to pursue long-term goals, the perseverance to stick with the task at hand, and the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. These various attributes all fall under the broad heading of Character and Resilience.

The Department for Education’s relentless interest in ‘academic’ success in schools, as exemplified by its focus on measuring Progress 8, has shifted the debate away from character and resilience towards something much narrower to do with certain subjects on the curriculum. Perhaps unintentionally a determination to class some subjects as academic (maths and English, for example) and others as not (such as music), has further polarised the debate about what counts in school.

Making excellent progress in core subjects is, of course, crucial, and nothing I am saying here seeks to take away from that fact.

But cultivating character is equally important and, as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility reminded us, especially so when we are looking at factors which will influence the life chances of those who are least well off.

Can you help us change the tone of the debate as we all try and improve schools? Simply by using the conjunction ‘and’ in your speeches and writings you could do this, by talking about the need to improve standards in numeracy and resilience, academic success and character.

With Guy Claxton, I have been making the case for character for several decades. Recently, in Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn, we imagine an imaginary girl called Ruby and describe a world in which she might be acquiring seven important capabilities at school – creativity, curiosity, collaboration, craftsmanship, confidence, and commitment – as well as the seven or more subjects you would expect to see on a typical timetable.

We wrote this book for parents and so, for ease of impact and memorability, we chose words beginning with the letter C. In the Expansive Education Network we use a more technical and educational language drawing on research to show how perseverance, self-regulation, self-belief, empathy and creative thinking matter and how schools can cultivate these in their students.

What’s the true purpose of education?

Almost exactly two years ago the Education Select Committee asked this question. At the Centre for Real-World Learning we worked with nine national bodies to see if common agreement could be reached – Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), City & Guilds, Comino Foundation, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), Mercers’ Company, PTA UK, Royal Academy of Engineers, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and Schools of Tomorrow.

Of the suggestions we made, two seem particularly important at the moment, that education should

  1. see capabilities and character as equally important as success in individual subjects, and
  2. make vocational and academic routes equally valued.

Can you help us change the conversation so that we begin to talk about these two twin aspirations for education – success in any test of character and success in examinations, a focus on ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ as well as on ‘head’ – as being equally desirable?

Researchers from across the world have shown how have shown how character and resilience, the twin themes of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility report with which I began this letter, also contribute to success in examinations. And our own research into vocational pedagogy and apprenticeships has shown how, as you think about introducing T levels and developing more higher-level apprenticeships rigorous pedagogy will help to ensure high-quality teaching.

Avoiding false opposites

In short, can we try and avoid the over-simplification of education being either about knowledge and skills or about capabilities and character, academic or non-academic and focus instead high-quality learning to equip all young people to be successful throughout their lives.

Here in the UK we are at the forefront of thinking about the kinds of capabilities young people will need if they are truly to thrive. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s plea for character and resilience is an example of this. The fact that the OECD’s PISA test of Creative Thinking in 2021 will be based on work undertaken by the Centre for Real-World Learning is another illustration.

But at home such innovation can easily get drowned out by the noise of simplistic argumentation.

Please help us all to strike a more measured and balanced tone when it comes to talking about what schools need to do.

Bill Lucas

Professor Bill Lucas, Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester


Schools will teach ‘soft skills’ from 2017, but assessing them presents a challenge

20th November
Bill Lucas

When students go back to school in January 2017 there will be some significant changes to their timetables. As well as learning areas like English, maths and science, there will be some new things to grapple with called “capabilities”.

The Australian curriculum will be focusing not just on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – but also on the kinds of “soft” skills young people will need if they are to be successful throughout their lives.

The new capabilities are:

  • Information and communication technology – using technology to access information, create products and solve problems
  • Critical and creative thinking – learning how to think and find ways to approach problems
  • Personal and social – recognising others’ emotions, supporting diversity and working together
  • Ethical – understanding values and concepts that underpin views
  • Intercultural – learning about your own and others’ cultures and beliefs.

Read full blog here

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.