Noncogs is short for non-cognitive skills, and I’ve just been at an OECD meeting where my former colleague Koji Miyamoto is preparing for some longitudinal studies to measure these in several different countries. Noncogs are, obviously, distinguished from cognitive skills, both general ones such as reasoning and analytical skills and specific ones such as subject-related skills (mathematical, linguistic etc). Noncogs include the capacity to concentrate on medium- or long-term goals, perseverance, the ability to deal with setbacks and the capacity to interact well with others.
There is increasing evidence that in many contexts noncogs are as important as cogs, if not more so. (We should always remember that the two categories are not watertight, and interact with each other.) This applies particularly to social outcomes of learning, such as healthy behaviour. We saw some particularly compelling evidence from Norway that noncogs are as important as cogs in helping young people avoid antisocial and criminal behaviour, or in stopping it if they’d been engaging in it. More than that: the effect of noncogs was particularly strong for those young people who scored poorly on cognitive skills. You could reasonably conclude from this that for those (mostly boys) who did not do well in traditional school activities noncogs are particularly important in helping them avoid antisocial behaviour.
A further aspect has particular implications for how we organise learning, and for our perceptions of the potential power of learning at different ages. Cognitive skills are most easily acquired early on in life (all this is quite heavy generalisation), and in some cases there are arguably ‘critical periods’ after which it becomes difficult if not impossible to acquire the skill. Think, for example, how easy it is for a small child to learn a second or third language, and how most adults toil when faced with the same task. This has reinforced the case for early interventions – though the exact timing is often a matter of contention. I’m all in favour of early interventions – look at the success of Surestart, now sadly dismantled – but there is a risk that emphasis on them undermines the case for making learning opportunities available to all later in their lives, so we get to a position where excellent opportunities are provided early on in people’s lives but at the expense of lifelong learning.
It turns out that noncogs are more malleable, and this fits very well with the growing neuroscientific evidence on the extended plasticity of the brain. In other words, we are capable of learning effectively for a lot longer than is often thought – not in respect of every skill, but especially in relation to noncogs. So the more important they are, for employment or for personal development, the stronger the case for lifelong learning – a conclusion which naturally delights me.
But now let’s turn to the PP-relevant aspect, which is primarily to do with how we explain the relative success of girls. Summary work by Lex Borghans, soon to be published by the OECD, shows how different kinds of skill – cogs and noncogs – affect lifetime outcomes. It seems that on a range of diverse socioeconomic outcomes, a bundle of skills within the broad category of ‘conscientiousness’ is the most powerful predictor when it comes to assessing the impact of education . Conscientiousness is defined in terms of being responsible, dependable, caring, organised and persistent. Does this ring gender bells? I think so.
All sorts of caveats need to be quickly put in place. I’m not saying that girls are inherently more conscientious, or better equipped to learn noncogs, than boys are. There is plenty of scope for arguing over the definitions of these various skills, and for how they are to be measured. But it is one to ponder and debate. And it is really important that we are beginning to get a clearer sense of how important it is to acknowledge the full range of skills needed, by adults as well as children, females and males. The moot point is how well our education systems are capable of adapting to this evidence.
A conversation with another former OECD colleague, Francesca Borgonovi, gave me a possible insight into why mathematics is one of the few areas where boys still outperform girls. It struck me that maths may be an area where these noncog skills have less application – not no application, but less application than in most cases. I wonder what the evidence might be on this. Francesca will have much to say about mathematical achievement when the Pisa results are released later this year, and that should include significant additional insights on the gender dimension of mathematical learning.