Resilience, conscientiousness, openness – do these matter more than cognitive skills?

We’re all  told, and most of us believe, that education makes a  big difference to people’s lives;  but what exactly is it about the education that has such an impact?  I’ve just been at a meeting organised by the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, where I used to work.   One of the meeting’s primary topics was how far so-called ‘non-cognitive’ skills/characteristics such as resilience, conscientiousness or ability to relate to others contribute to individuals’ success, as compared with traditional cognitive skills such as levels of literacy or numeracy.

The project is looking particularly at the social outcomes of learning,  ie how education does (or doesn’t) affect issues such as crime, health or active citizenship.  It’s not easy to get good data on this, and still less easy to make comparisons across countries.  But here are a few of the results which seem to be emerging, using longitudinal data which enables us to differentiate people according to their levels of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills :

– in Norway, non-cognitive skills (‘non-cogs’) have a stronger effect in reducing crime than cogs, and the difference is particularly strong for those with low cognitive skills

– in Germany, there is no relation between cogs and not smoking, whereas non-cogs have an effect at all levels of skill.  Cogs appear to increase alcohol dependency (slightly) and non-cogs to reduce it substantially

– in Korea and Switzerland, non-cogs affect well-being positively at all levels, but cogs only at some levels in Korea and not at all in Switzerland.

This is all still quite tentative, as my OECD colleague Koji Miyamoto who now runs the project would wish me to emphasise.  Not all the results point in  the same direction – in Australia non-cogs seem to be positively associated with increased obesity!   We need to do a lot more to explain how these apparent links actually work.  But there is a fairly strong underlying message emerging, which is that non-cogs are at least important, and in many cases may be more important than the more conventionally recognisable  skills.  It may mean, for example, that interventions which rely on transmitting information and expecting people to act on it are less effective than ones which address their outlook and self-image.

There are potentially large implications for our education systems.   One of them is whether our qualification systems are giving the right signals, ie do they tell the outside world  – not  only employers – enough about what students of all ages have acquired in the way of competences?  It’s a complicated issue, especially since it’s not sure how we should go about assessing in any kind of formal way non-cognitive competences such as resilience or conscientiousness.

For the  PP, I can’t yet draw any definite conclusions.  We know that girls and women outperform boys and men on formal qualifications, and therefore in very broad terms on cognitive skills.  My guess is that they do so also on most of the non-cognitive skills – notably on conscientiousness.  If so, this would increase the gender competence gap still further.   But I’ll need to dig around for evidence on this one – unless anyone out there can help?



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