Where are curiosity, persistence and resilience in our school curriculum debate?

Developing non-cognitive skills like curiosity and persistence are essential to a good education and need to be part of the school curriculum debate, writes Sara Glover.

I’ve been reading with great interest new research on the importance of non-cognitive skills for doing well in life. One paper by the well-known economist James Heckman and colleagues from the National Bureau of Economic Research, and another paper from Richard Reeves and colleagues at the Brookings Institute. In a recent article in The Conversation, Nicholas Biddle and Sarah Ball from Australian National University wrote that schools should be about more than just measuring intelligence.

What I find interesting is the growing body of evidence that non-cognitive skills, or what some refer to as ‘character’ skills, do indeed matter. They have, according to Heckman and colleagues, a strong influence on educational attainment and additional effects on important life outcomes beyond schooling.

But what do we mean by ‘non-cognitive skills’?

Persistence, curiosity and resilience are just some examples. Persistent students work hard on a task even when it gets difficult. Curiosity is another important skill, and is pivotal to how students learn. Resilience gives students the ability to overcome setbacks and mistakes.

Literacy and numeracy skills are foundational ones, but concentrating on these, at the exclusion of an explicit focus on developing non-cognitive skills, is short sighted.

These skills are the important ingredients for successful learning and satisfying lives. Teachers, parents, employers, and the students themselves, know this. Yet there seems to be an absence of discussion about these important dimensions of education in the current curriculum and assessment debates.

The good news is these skills can be developed. They are not set in stone. But the bad news is that gaps in non-cognitive strengths open up at an early age and can persist if there are limited opportunities for development.

Non-cognitive skills are highly malleable in the early years. From years 0–3, they build an essential ‘skills base’ that promotes later learning and engagement in schooling. In adolescence, mentoring, work-place programs or community projects that explicitly teach non-cognitive skills motivate students in their learning.

Literacy and numeracy skills are foundational ones, but concentrating on these, at the exclusion of an explicit focus on developing non-cognitive skills, is short sighted. If we ignore the importance of these vital life skills, as it appears we might in the development of our national curriculum, we will fail our students and leave them ill-prepared for the workforce of the future.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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