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Curriculum, Redesigning Schools

Before We Become Too Standardised: Why We Must Develop Knowledge and Dispositions

Apparently we all want it; if we get it then we will be more successful in school, work and life.  It is powerful.

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

What is It?

“It” refers to valuable intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, such as self-control and collaboration. For decades, psychologists, economists, and other academics have studied and established the impact of a range of these mindsets, skills, and behaviors on a wide variety of important life outcomes. They are often referred to as “non-cognitive” skills to distinguish them from the cognitive and academic skills typically seen as the province of schools. Some prefer to call them character strengths, social-emotional competencies, soft skills, 21st century skills, or other names. We prefer to call them Mindsets, Essential Skills, & Habits (MESH) …

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

Thanks to Mary Myatt for sharing this report on twitter and to Daniel Willingham for his blog post on the working paper; his only quibble with the report was the drawing of “a causal conclusion about the evidence of success in fostering non-cognitive skills in preschool.”  (See Academics point 3 below).


Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

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.  It was in stark contrast and formed a pleasant respite from a number of blogs over the holidays on the traditionalist versus progressive debate which were lauded or vilified depending who was retweeting them; restating the importance or not of the debate, in short, there was not much new being said in the blogosphere on this topic.

To an extent I wonder whether the perspective of the blogger may depend on their subject or phase; secondary English and History teachers will have been through a period where necessary factual and conceptual knowledge was to an extent side lined by procedural knowledgeI wonder whether we possibly label ourselves more on our direction of travel, becoming more traditional or progressive, rather than our absolute position.  Apart from a very brief vacuous flirtation with Process Science in the early 1980s my class room and subsequent belief in the curriculum has always seen the four knowledge dimensions – factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive – as of equal value though my teaching of the metacognitive lacked the necessary depth.  The development of the learner alongside the acquisition of knowledge forms the DNA of education.

DNA of Learning

Hard Stuff with Soft Skills

In accepting the different philosophical roots of the traditionalist and progressives my stance has always been it’s a false dichotomy in the class room (sits back and watches twitter go into meltdown).  My simple reasoning goes something like this: if you are traditionalist leaning and want to teach conceptually demanding material based on the retention of a wide factual base than the “soft skills, attributes and dispositions” proposed by progressives are your naturally allies in the class room.  This works the other way around as well; if you want to develop deep rooted dispositions than you need a challenging content with which to build them. 

In Blackpool, like many disadvantaged areas, children are doubly disadvantaged with an absence of sufficient cultural transmission and weak dispositions.  Current assessment of their mental toughness shows it is well below the norm on entry to secondary schools and gets worse; particularly for girls.  We need to provide an education that is knowledge and disposition rich.

The Latest Battleground

Assessment is arguably the latest battleground for traditionalists and progressives; cue another national educational policy being released via the Sunday papers and times tables will now be assessed as part of the Key Stage 2 SATs.  Children need to learn their times tables; developing an automaticity helps no end when you are learning Mathematics.  Including them in high stakes, narrow bludgeoning assessment of the curriculum I see as a separate issue.  The rise of the standardised test has been championed by a number of commentators and politicians recently whilst the use of teacher assessment has been portrayed as unreliable and lacking validity.  The working paper by Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015) is really clear about these different forms of assessment:

“Standardized test scores aim to provide a highly objective measure of students’ academic skills, knowledge, and aptitude through performance on identical items at a single point in time evaluated in a uniform manner using, in most cases, computerized scoring. By contrast, grades are at least somewhat subjective across teachers: they are benchmarked differently from school to school and course to course. Grades reflect a teacher’s assessment of a student’s performance over the whole period of the course. So how can grades be better predictors of college success than standardized tests developed largely to predict college readiness?

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

 As with all assessments the validity needs to be focussed on the inferences or conclusions being drawn rather than the assessments per se.  The benefits of teacher assessment and its power as a future predictor of success in further and higher education lies in the fact it captures “both cognitive and non-cognitive competencies, as teachers observe and value effort, cooperation, and other non-cognitive competencies alongside academic knowledge and skills.”

The International March of the Non-Cognitive Skills

Whilst the English Education system is veering towards a more traditionalist approach the international measures, for example, the OECD in its 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam included a task aimed at measuring students’ collaborative problem-solving skills.  The results, to be reported in December 2016, will include the outcomes of computer-based tasks in which students worked through a “chat” function with virtual collaborators to solve a problem.

Systems tend to oscillate around current politicians beliefs and in response to what went before; in England there are concerns at an apparent lack of academic knowledge compared to other education system whilst they in turn are concerned at the lack of creativity and team working skills of their students.

The traditional versus progressive debate is too often focuses on the philosophical divide or dichotomy rather than seeing the real World tension; life in the reality of the class room requires a practical wisdom, informed by a working knowledge of the underlying educational philosophies and a World view of what it is to be human … having re-read this I think I might be guilty of not actually adding anything new to this thousand year old debate; ironically my earlier criticism of other bloggers.  The traditionalist part of me needs to clearly transmit the fact that dispositions matter.

So here’s to the next millennium of debate and dialogue remembering what we currently know is “there is ample evidence that non-cognitive competencies are critical influencers of the outcomes we all want for students: success in school, work, and life. Given this evidence, it is time for education policy and practice to focus on developing students’ non-cognitive competencies alongside their academic skills … Given the importance of these outcomes and the strength of the existing research, it is time for these competencies to be incorporated effectively into educational policy and practice as complements to existing academic and cognitive goals in order to ensure schooling works to help all students flourish.”

Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015)

If you’re interested in reading more about the philosophical roots of education I’d recommend Martin Robinson’s book Trivium 21st Century and also advise you to avoid twitter; light versus heat would be the best way to describe the difference between the two sources.


Working Paper by Gabrieli C, Ansel D and Bartolino Krachman S (2015) Ready To Be Counted: The Research Case for Education Policy Action on Non-Cognitive Skills. Transforming Education Working Paper, Boston.



3 thoughts on “Before We Become Too Standardised: Why We Must Develop Knowledge and Dispositions

  1. Great find and discussion.thank you (to Mary also).
    Dan Willingham suggests reaching character?
    Dan Willingham suggests character is important to success?
    Dan Willingham talks of 21st century skills alongside knowledge?
    This should set twitter on fire is anything will.

    Posted by brian | January 10, 2016, 8:39 am


  1. Pingback: On non-cognitive skills and the “no position” position | Education: the sacred and the profane - January 11, 2016

  2. Pingback: Traditional Progressivity or Progressive Traditionalism: Ditch the dichotomy | the édu flâneuse - January 16, 2016

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