Non-cognitive skills-should we measure them?

And have education standards improved historically (not really)

Report from Edfest


The term ‘non-cognitive skills’ , according to the Education Endowment Foundation ,refers to  ‘a set of attitudes, behaviours, and strategies that are thought to underpin success in school and at work, such as motivation, perseverance, and self-control. They are usually contrasted with the ‘hard skills’ of cognitive ability in areas such as literacy and numeracy, which are measured by academic tests.’ Under non-cognitive skills comes character education, now apparently supported by both the Coalition and Labour which is the idea that specific “good character” traits can be taught to children and students. Character education is hard to define but politicians think they see it in private education and want it transferred to the state sector.

The problem with non-cognitive skills is that they are often, difficult to measure, and  some might say to  teach. Government attempts to  support non-cognitive skills ie through PHSE programmes have had decidedly mixed reviews.  The EEF found that robust evidence of a causal relationship between non-cognitive skills and later success is  in fact limited.  Not much is known, the EEF claims,  about how far it is possible to  develop a young person’s non-cognitive skills through intervention, or whether such changes lead to  improved outcomes, especially in the long-term, e.g., employment.

However, Professor James Heckman’s research emphasizes the overwhelming importance of non cognitive skills in predicting life outcomes. These noncognitive or “personality” skills (such as conscientiousness, honesty, and persistence), he claims, have consistently been shown to trump IQ in determining success later in life and  found that programs that encourage non-cognitive skills effectively promote long-term success for participants.

Although current policies, particularly those related to school reform, put heavy emphasis on test scores, practical experience and academic research show that non-cognitive skills also lead to achievement according to  Heckman. Because non-cognitive skills are more easily improved during adolescence than are cognitive skills and they often stabilize in the formative years, public policy, he argues , can help stimulate their development over longer periods. For instance, while IQ is well set by age 8, he claims    (what about the Flynn effect?) non-cognitive skills such as dependability continue to develop. (Heckman is also a robust advocate of early interventions to ensure that disadvantaged children are given the opportunity to break out of the cycle of disadvantage. Evidence shows  investment in early interventions pays dividends both for the economy and the individual’s concerned.)

Big and open  questions though  remain about whether non-cognitive skills, which are prized by both admissions tutors and employers, can be  be well supported in schools, and whether they can , or  indeed should, be   accurately  measured.

Some of these issues were discussed at last weekend’s Sunday Times/Wellington College  Edfest. In a session asking whether standards had fallen in education, panellists seemed to agree that standards have either stagnated or fallen in our  system (in a historical context). In any case we seem to have had a pretty poor return as taxpayers  on increased investment in education. Jonathan Simons, Daisy Christodoulou, Geoff Mulgan ,Sam Freedman, Andrew Old, John Blake  and Robert Peal   commented on falling standards  with some, led by Peal of course,  suggesting that progressive ideology among teachers bore a heavy responsibility for our underperformance. While accepting the importance of non-cognitive skills they were very wary indeed about seeking to measure them in schools, or imposing external accountability measures to add to the ones that exist that focus on cognitive skills . Mulgan championed  robust evidence and Studio schools and said that they supported the development of non-cognitive skills, with some internal measures to monitor them, but even he was   not advocating externally imposed measures .Daisy Christodolou seemed to make a good point by reminding us of Goodharts Law, the modern formulation of which is “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” We were reminded of the C grade boundary at GCSE which it is widely accepted has skewed our education system, so that resources were targeted at those pupils on the grade boundary to the detriment of the most able and weakest pupils.

The consensus here was to avoid new accountability measures for non-cognitive skills (ie similar to  the Duckworth index). But there were no pointers from panellists as to how you help support the development of non-cognitive skills in schools, without any incentives. If you don’t provide incentives in a system you are unlikely to get the outcomes you want.  Our system is geared to valuing things that can be measured. John Blake  by the way, a self-confessed  Blairite  teacher , seemed to think that the Financial Crisis and the shenanigans of  our leaders in the City meant that trying to focus on developing  leadership in schools was  probably a waste of time, although ,to be fair, he had half his  tongue in his cheek (I think) . Mind you, thinking of the City, shouldn’t  our children  have lessons in ethics? (another non-cognitive skill)

What was perhaps most depressing though, was the apparent acceptance that despite education being at the top of the political agenda for the last 17 years and with significant new investment, that the best that can be said is that standards in some areas of literacy and numeracy have either   seen very modest improvement (by international standards), stagnated or in some cases gone down .  According to a 2010 study (see below) the    proportion, for example, of young adults with poor reading (below Level 1) seems to have remained stubbornly at about 17% since 1980.  And ‘substantial proportions of young people (16–19 or 16–24/25) have poor numeracy (below Entry level 3), of the order of 22%’. And ‘On average, number skills in England are poorer than in many other countries, especially industrialised ones, though other aspects of numeracy are better.’



See Rashid Brooks study which gives mixed results

The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England,

1948–2009 Research report Sammy Rashid and Greg Brooks, University of Sheffield-2010




  1. Very interesting – thank you. Ironically, the focus on cognitive skills at the expense of non-cognitive ones may be precisely the reason that results have not increased: there has been little improvement in the *attitude* of pupils. In fact, in my experience, the learned helplessness brought on both by the recent high-pressure educational climate and over-indulgence at home is making many pupils who ought to care more, actually care less.

    This does not mean that you can teach non-cognitive skills directly – as is all too often seen in pupils’ reactions to PSHE etc., they see it as ‘worthy’ and interfering. I suspect that there may well be more evidence of this in the private sector – it’s summed up in the word ‘ethos’. You can’t teach it – you have to *imbue* it – but I suspect it really does make a huge difference to educational outcomes.

    • Agree. I raised the issue of cognitive skills with the panel because I do believe that you can encourage resilience and help pupils to focus on what really matters but its not easy and if centrally organised and prescribed is probably counter-productive. We could benefit from more research in this area.

  2. Hmm. What would/could research tell us about this? Or maybe the problem is the *type* of research being done. Can statistics really tell us anything about how to change attitudes? Have you read Flow by Czikszentmihalyi? Maybe his kind of research could help…

    • Yes. Blogged on the Flow back when
      Posted on March 17, 2012 | 2 Comments | Edit

      Another dimension of positive psychology and its relevance to education


      Positive psychology is making inroads into current educational thinking. Here is one aspect- Reaching a state of Flow-bear with me!
      Flow in psychology’ is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
      Part psychological study, part self-help book, Finding Flow is a prescriptive guide that ‘helps us reclaim ownership of our lives’. The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his professional life to the study of happiness and how we can attain it.

      Based on a far-reaching study of thousands of individuals, Finding Flow contends that we often walk through our days unaware and out of touch with our emotional lives. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Our inattention makes us constantly bounce between two extremes: during much of the day we live filled with the anxiety and pressures of our work and obligations, while during our leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom. So, the key, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is to challenge ourselves with tasks requiring a high degree of skill and commitment. So at its most simple level-instead of watching television, for example play the piano. Transform a routine task by taking a different approach. In short, learn the joy of complete engagement. Though they appear simple, the lessons in Finding Flow are life-altering.

      Flow first came to Csikszentmihalyi’s attention while he was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. As they worked the artists seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the finished product was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself. External rewards were less important than intrinsic pleasure, an observation that went against the grain of psychological thinking at the time.
      According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:
      Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.

      Strong concentration and focused attention.
      The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
      Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
      Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
      Immediate feedback.
      Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
      Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
      Lack of awareness of physical needs.
      Complete focus on the activity itself.
      So what relevance does this have for education? Csíkszentmihályi has suggested that overlearning a skill or concept can help people experience flow. Another critical concept in his theory is the idea of slightly extending oneself beyond one’s current ability level. This slight stretching of one’s current skills can help the individual experience flow. Flow can lead to improved performance too. Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity. Flow can also lead to further learning and skill development. Because the act of achieving flow indicates a strong mastery of a certain skill, the individual must continually seek new challenges and information in order to maintain this state.
      In the late 1980s Csikszentmihalyi and several colleagues undertook a longitudinal survey of over 200 talented teenagers to discover why some are able to develop their talents while others give up. One of their principal findings, published in Talented Teens – The Roots of Success and Failure was that ‘flow was the strongest predictor of subjective engagement and how far the student progressed in the school’s curriculum in his or her talent’.

      The authors suggest three ‘promising steps for promoting optimal experience in the classroom’:
      1. The most influential teachers were found to be those who always continue to nurture their interest in their subjects and do not take their ability to convey that enthusiasm for granted. Learning was found to flourish where the cultivation of passionate interest was a primary educational goal.

      2. Attention should be paid to ‘conditions that enhance the experience of maximum rewards’. Everything should be done to minimise the impact of rules, exams and procedures and to focus on the inherent satisfaction of learning. (In a more recent interview, Csikszentmihalyi has stated that although it makes some sense to work on students’ weaknesses, it makes even more sense to work on their strengths, ‘Because once someone has developed strengths, then everything else becomes easier.’)

      3. Teachers must read the shifting needs of learners. The flow state is not a static one: once a skill has been mastered it is necessary to add more complexity if the student is not to become bored – there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills. The teacher’s sense of timing and pace, of when to intervene and when to hold back, is therefore crucial. There must be freedom wherever possible for the student to control the process, but teachers must also draw on their experience to channel students’ attention.


      Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. In Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

      Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

      Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.

      Csikszentmihalyi, M (2002), Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, London

      Thoughts about Education on

      Csikszentmihalyi, M, Rathunde, K, and Whalen, S (1997), Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

      Scherer, M (2002), ‘Do students care about learning? A conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’Educational Leadership 60 (1)

  3. Many thanks for that – his work speaks volumes to me about the goals of education, and there are more leads there, which I will follow up. I think he deserves to be far more widely known, especially amongst those who believe that Control is everything.

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