I’ve been invited to attend a conference on the educational and economic importance of ‘non-cognitive skills’. The invitation is accompanied by a glossy booklet in which various notables expatiate on the ‘development of character, non-cognitive skills, mindfulness and well-being’.
The invitation arrived while I was checking the final draft of the new CPRT report on children’s cognitive development and learning, commissioned from leading cognitive neuroscientist Usha Goswami and published earlier this week.
The two documents couldn’t be more different. In Goswami’s report, cognition – the ways, in Bruner’s words, that humans ‘achieve, categorise, remember, organise and use their knowledge of the world’ – is at the heart of the educational enterprise. But the conference booklet castigates this focus on cognition, re-labelled ‘cognitive skills’, for neglecting much of what education should be about.
What is going on here? And does it matter?
Let’s take the second question first. Well yes, how we think about thinking, learning and knowing matters a great deal, and to no group of professionals should it matter more than to teachers, for exciting and advancing these processes in pursuit of an educational vision is their job. Indeed, one of the strengths of the professional world of primary education used to be its belief in the need for classroom relationships and decisions to be grounded in evidence about how young children develop, think and learn. Reflecting this, the first 10 chapters of the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review are devoted to children and childhood.
Such evidence doesn’t stand still, which is why CPR commissioned the research reviews that CPRT is now revisiting and updating. Nor is child developmental evidence on its own a sufficient basis for teaching, though there was a time during the 1960s and 1970s that some believed this and constructed teacher training courses accordingly, thereby offering trainees knowledge of children but not of how to teach them. Now, thankfully, our take on pedagogy is more comprehensive.
So when someone says ‘I’ve seen the future and it’s non-cognitive’ is this the latest stage in the refinement of our account of teachers’ core business or merely the latest educational fashion? What, to return to my other question, is going on here?
My conference booklet answers thus: today’s schools are not equipping tomorrow’s citizens and employees with what they will need in order to cope, work and prosper in a fast-changing world, so something different is needed. Nothing new here of course: during the past few decades pundit after pundit and report after report – including the Cambridge Primary Review – has levelled this same charge at established patterns of schooling in the UK. The current iteration focuses, with some justice in view of the UK’s poor showing in international studies, on the importance of well-being and children’s capacities to manage their lives positively and productively. This was the claimed impetus for the Secretary of State’s recent intervention on character, grit and resilience (see our blog on 30 January).
But what is worrying about the current packaging of character, grit and resilience under the apparently novel banner of ‘non-cognitive skills’ is the way that far from offering something new it recycles and perpetuates some of the oldest, most damaging and least tenable dichotomies in the book, wrapping them in a brace of terminological contradications.
One such is the conference title’s stunning parodox of non-cognitive mindfulness. Another is the very concept of a ‘non-cognitive skill’. Is this possible? The authoritative Foresight Report on mental capital and wellbeing thinks not. Though in execution some skills become so habitual that we stop thinking about them, few if any skills are genuinely mindless. Acquired and honed through training and practice, skills also require knowledge and reflection, especially when – as with the skills with which education is particularly concerned – skills are infinitely perfectible. But then the problem here is in part linguistic, for these days every conceivable educational goal is tagged a ‘skill’ and knowledge is nowhere: basic skills, numeracy skills, literacy skills, creative skills, emotional skills, interpersonal skills, hard skills, soft skills, cognitive skills, non-cognitive skills …
Then, recycling that ancient dichotomy, my conference glossy continues: ‘Schools need to teach students not only academic knowledge and cognitive skills, but also the knowledge and non-cognitive skills they will need to promote their mental and physical health and successfully contribute to the economy and society … to counter the idea that promoting cognitive development and academic attainment is all that matters for the economy.’ Here, not only are ‘cognitive’ and ‘academic’ equated; they are also seen as neither conducive to children’s mental health nor economically relevant. So much for maths, science, design and technology and, oh yes, literacy.
Or take this definition, from a companion source: ‘Non-cognitive skills are those academically and occupationally relevant skills and traits that are not specifically intellectual or analytical in nature’. Academic but non-cognitive? Academically relevant but not intellectual?
Or this: ‘Non-cognitive skills include persistence, communication skills and other “soft” skills that are not objectively measured … unlike cognitive skills, which educators can measure objectively with tests.’ So communication, that most basic and demanding of basics, is ‘soft’, non-cognitive and unable to be assessed. And what touching faith in the objective measurability of the rest of the mainstream curriculum.
Or again, pursuing the same eccentric process of re-classification, the conference glossy helpfully includes in its list of ‘non-cognitive skills’ not just familiar items like ‘perseverance’ and ‘self-control’ but also ‘meta-cognitive strategies’ and ‘creativity’. Apart from the mind-boggling idea that something can at the same time be meta-cognitive and non-cognitive, it’s the assertion that creativity excludes cognition – in the face of centuries of artistic and scientific endeavour – that most brutally nails this nonsense.
Knowledge versus skill, hard subjects versus soft, cognitive versus creative, cognition versus meta-cognition, thinking versus feeling, mind versus body. Here, sartorially updated for 2015, is that same ‘muddled and reductive discourse about subjects, knowledge and skills’ of which in 2009 the CPR final report complained (pp 245-50); a discourse in which ‘discussion of the place of subjects is needlessly polarised, knowledge is grossly parodied as grubbing for obsolete facts, and the undeniably important notion of skill is inflated to cover aspects of learning for which it is not appropriate.’ Which is why, of course, supposedly ‘non-cognitive’ creativity is relegated to the non-core and Friday afternoons – something that in the interests of a more rounded education the apostles of non-cognitive skills rightly want to change, but for the wrong reasons. What a muddle.
So it was with relief that I turned back to Usha Goswami’s new report for CPRT. For here in place of fads, fancies, cod psychology and epistemological car crashes we have evidence carefully accumulated, searchingly sifted and expertly assessed; and, interestingly, a kind of resolution of the problem of how to define and place those wider attributes we all accept are necessary in today’s world – for I stress that I’m as concerned as anyone that schools should motivate and engage children, build their confidence, help them to manage their learning and their lives, and develop their social and communicative capacities. But, crucially, what the non-cognitive skills people see as separate from academic activity Usha Goswami sees as intrinsic to it. Her stance is not the exclusivity of cognitive versus non-cognitive, but the inclusivity of cognitive plus metacognitive. In a key section on metacognition and executive functioning (which, taken together, are not far removed from ‘mindfulness’), she writes:
Metacognition is knowledge about cognition, encompassing factors such as knowing about your own information-processing skills, monitoring your own cognitive performance, and knowing about the demands made by different kinds of cognitive tasks. Executive function refers to gaining strategic control over your own mental processes, inhibiting certain thoughts or actions, and developing conscious control over your thoughts, feelings and behaviour … As children gain metaknowledge about their mental processes, their strategic control also improves. Developments in metacognition and executive function tend to be associated with language development, the development of working memory (which enables multiple perspectives to be held in mind) and nonverbal ability.
The report then goes on to document strategies through which in the classroom these capacities can be developed.
In other words, what the non-cognitive skills people present as a curriculum issue is in reality a pedagogical one. Of course, there are always questions to be asked about the relevance, scope and balance of the curriculum, and England’s new old national curriculum has certainly not answered them. But communication, motivation, engagement, perseverance and self-control do not require the addition of a battery of pseudo-skills to an overcrowded curriculum. They require us to think differently about how we teach what is already there. So, given that one of the non-cognitivists’ main concerns is the contribution of education to the economy, I might just arm myself with an update of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election slogan, turn up at that conference and shout, ‘It’s the pedagogy, stupid.’
Download Usha Goswami’s new CPRT report Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning.
Download the short briefing on Usha Goswami’s report.