Education and Politics · Philosophy of education · Progressivism · Research · Traditionalism

On non-cognitive skills and the “no position” position

I was interested over the Christmas period to follow, and engage with, the debate about the Progressive-Neo-Traditionalist dichotomy.

I have also read some critiques of the dichotomy like this one by Stephen Tierney. It seemed to me that this particular blog conforms to the “no position” position. This usually entails a critique of the dichotomy before suggesting a third way. The preferred position of the non-dichotomist.

Actually, it’s a well written and interesting blog. It just happens to highlight the problems of the “non position” position. In this case the preferred “non position” is discussed alongside a single academic paper not unsurprisingly, by cognitive psychologists.

Stephen Tierney says this:

The working paper is a very interesting read and the authors have the humility and good sense to note that their paper summarised the current state of knowledge and evidence about which skills matter for success in school, college, career, and life; they neither overstated nor understated the evidence from their large review of the available evidence and literature on self-regulation

The reasonableness of the paper is contrasted with the Trad-Prog debate, which isn’t, by all accounts, that reasonable.

In fact the paper makes this claim:

….there is compelling evidence that MESH competencies are critical influencers of the outcomes we all want for students—success in academics, career, and life—and, therefore, that these skills need to be fully incorporated into education policy and practice.

MESH being Mindsets, Essential Skills, & Habits . There is possibly compelling evidence that there is a need for Essential skills. They would hardly be essential otherwise but I would guess that there is less compelling evidence that you can teach them.

The paper is published by an organisation called Transforming Education. I’ve never heard of it but Stephen Tierney justifies the document by making reference to Daniel Willingham who is on the National Advisory Board of the organisation that published the paper. I presume, therefore, this is a group of researchers with shared interests.

The paper outlines the case for non-cognitive skills  using all the re-assuring words that suggests validity making reference to academic research etc. Whether it offers a broad view of the field or is more representative of an interest group I cannot say. The authors seem to be leading lights in Transforming Education.

The paper claims that those with non-cognitive skills do better at school and, of course, in life. Companies want those skills, they are good for the economy.

Problematically those who do better at school generally do better in life. Success in life being partially dependent upon qualifications at school. You wonder whether this could say as much about schools as it  does about the importance of non-cognitive skills. What if society were different would the same people be successful in it?

You also wonder what a non-cognitive skill actually is.  One example given, in the paper, is control. Apparently, if you have no self-control you do badly at school. Who knew?

But what is control? Is it a social construction? Do we impose the category onto bad behaviour such that one, and the other, are always conflated? Is it possible to teach non-cognitive skills? Are we in danger of demonising types of personalities in order to chase economic success? I can hear all the twitter objections without even having to engage with them.

Willingham says this:

My only quibble is that, were I the author of this report, I would have been a bit more cautious in drawing a causal conclusion about the evidence of success in fostering non-cognitive skills in preschool (conclusion #3 above). It is of course possible that self-control is largely heritable and is changed little by the environment, so it’s important to know that the positive outcomes associated with non-cognitive skills can be promoted by practices in schools. The authors cite a 2014 report by Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver showing success, which is encouraging, but it is, according to Blair & Raver, the first experimental demonstration of.

Daniel Willingham is right and it’s a common criticism of Non-Cognitive skills. Can you teach something that could be largely heritable? I would love schools to teach non-cognitive skills. It would solve so many problems in society but there are issues.

In fact, according to Willingham the research seems to rest on one cited paper. If control is largely heritable the problem exists whether you are three or thirty three. Of course, a lack of control is most evident where young people are “out of control”. It has resonance.The clever discourse of some cognitive psychologists resides at the extremes.

Stephen Tierney’s blog is useful because it links to an interesting paper but it also highlights the problem of the “non position” position. Academic research doesn’t float free from ideology and disputation either. The winners are not necessarily those with the best research. They are often those whose work aligns whether consciously, or otherwise, to one political agenda or other. Or is currently in vogue.

It is for that reason that most social researchers have a philosophical position. It may not be Prog’ and Trad’ but they do have one because embedding your approach in a recognised body of work  gives it a measure of transparency that often doesn’t exist when you are citing single papers.

Just for good measure this is what EEF says about non-cognitive skills. It doesn’t sound compelling to me.

Discussion of non-cognitive skills is complicated and contested. There is little agreement even on whether ‘non cognitive skills’ is the right way to describe the set of issues under discussion, and terms such as ‘character skills’, ‘competencies’, ‘personality traits’, ‘soft skills’ and ‘life skills’ are also widely used.


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