Non-cognitive skills – why so important? (Só disponível em inglês)

Joana Cruz Ferreira
“Numerous instances can be cited of people with high IQs who fail to achieve success in life because they lacked self-discipline and of people with low IQs who succeeded by virtue of persistence, reliability and self-discipline”

by Heckman & Rubinstein

What are non-cognitive skills?

Multiple traits compose a broad definition of what it means to be an educated person. Indisputably, being an educated person is associated with having a certain command of a curriculum, and knowledge of theories and facts from various disciplines. But the term educated also suggests a more far-reaching concept associated with individuals’ full development. Such development implies, for example, that individuals are equipped with traits and skills — such as critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, social skills, persistence, creativity, and self-control — that allow them to contribute meaningfully to society and to succeed in their public lives, workplaces, homes, and other societal contexts. These traits are often called, generically, non-cognitive skills.

Non-cognitive skills have been broadly defined as representing the “patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour” (Borghans et al. 2008) of individuals that may continue to develop throughout their lives (Bloom 1964). These skills are developed before and throughout children’s school years. The development of these skills is dependent on family and societal characteristics and on school and teacher factors (particularly the instruction and social interactions that take place in school).

How to measure non-cognitive skills?

Psychologists primarily measure non-cognitive skills by using self-reported surveys or observer reports. They have arrived at a relatively well-accepted taxonomy of non-cognitive skills called the Big Five, with the acronym OCEAN, which stands for: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Agreeableness is the willingness to help other people, to act in accordance with other people interests and it is measured in the degree to which an individual is cooperative, warm and agreeable. Conscientiousness is the preference for following rules and schedules, for keeping engagements and the attitude of being hardworking, organized and dependable. Emotional stability addresses the degree to which the individual is insecure, anxious, depressed and emotional rather than calm, self-confident and cool. Openness measures the degree to which a person needs intellectual stimulation, change, and variety. Extraversion is the preference for human contacts, empathy, gregariousness, assertiveness and the wish to inspire people.

Why are non-cognitive skills so important nowadays?

Investment in human capital is widely regarded as a pivotal point in the development of higher levels of economic welfare. However, the literature appoints many cases of core competencies failures in countries from all over the world, including developed countries like Portugal. Evidence from the United Kingdom supports these findings. A survey of 4,000 employers found that the four skills found most lacking in 16 to 24-year-olds were technical and practical skills, general communication skills, customer handling skills, and teamwork skills. At the bottom of the list were numeracy and literacy skills. In a more recent survey of 4,000 employers in the UK, 23% of employers reported a significant number of their staff were less than fully proficient at their jobs. Skill shortfalls were most common in communication, teamwork, other technical and practical skills, customer handling, and problem solving and least common in numeracy and literacy. While most recovery programs are focused on cognitive abilities (for example, review classroom material), economists have recently begun to devote attention to non-cognitive dimensions of behaviour of children and young people.

1) Effects of non-cognitive skills on cognitive skills

Experimental evidence suggests that non-cognitive skills such as motivation and conscientiousness affect the outcomes of cognitive test scores. For example, students put more time in answering IQ questions when rewards are higher. This is the result of an experiment conducted (Borghans, Meijers and ter Weel, 2006) measures psychological traits and economic preference parameters of 128 Dutch students. Initially there were no rewards for right answers, but later on, when these rewards were introduced, results substantially improved. Individuals who are more self-disciplined and exhibit higher perseverance and motivation are likely to attain higher educational attainment and better grades at school.

2) Effects of non cognitive skills on earnings and employment

The recent empirical literature, conducted in the US and in Europe, supports the view that a certain level of non-cognitive ability is a prerequisite for avoiding failure in the labour market. Moreover, labour market earnings tend to be higher among individuals with higher non-cognitive skills.

Final remarks

In fact, non-cognitive skills matter for their own sake but they also matter indirectly. In particular, non-cognitive skills support cognitive development; non-cognitive and cognitive skills are interdependent and cannot be isolated from one another. Additionally, employers stress the value of non-cognitive skills in the workplace, and evidence suggests that non-cognitive skills are associated with higher productivity and earnings. Multiple studies that have identifyed the interdependence between cognitive and non-cognitive skills indicate that we may fail to boost cognitive skills unless we pay closer attention to non-cognitive skills. In other words, focusing on non-cognitive skills may actually further improve reading, writing, and mathematics performance.

Having this said, the education system should ensure that all children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential by exploring these traits in their developmental years in school. In other words, as non-cognitive skills are educational outcomes whose intrinsic value makes them important per se, and whose production or accumulation in children’s school years has demonstrated importance, we contend that education policymakers must embrace non-cognitive skills, and design policies that protect these skills and foster their development.

Sara Guerreiro de Sousa

A Sara integra o SIB Research Programme e está a desenvolver um estudo de viabilidade para um Título de Impacto Social na área da educação.

Não há comentários

Deixe uma resposta

O seu endereço de email não será publicado. Campos obrigatórios marcados com *