Personal development: OECD’s social and emotional skills. Is it science?

  • ‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by Dutch education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further).
Ben Wilbrink, May 17, 2016

‘Personal development’ is at the top of the list of the Platform, yet it is difficult to gather what exactly that personal development might be. Exemplary for the fuzzy writing in the report is this quote

  • A relevant curriculum
    The personal development of students draws upon all components of the curriculum and demands education which is relevant and meaningful to the student. It should invite and encourage the student to ask questions, to probe on the basis of his own creativity and curiosity, thus developing enterprise and flexibility. At an early age, the student will learn to take and act upon his responsibility. He will feel engaged and appreciated.

The report does not explain much, the only references being to two OECD reports on social and emotional skills. Those skills get mixed up, in the Platform report as well as in OECD 2015d, with curiosity and creativity; curiosity and creativity seem to be the key to everything, influence of Sir Ken Robinson? Questions on scientific underpinnings of this personal development thing then boil down to the even bigger questions of scientific underpinnings of OECD positions. This blog will not give any answers, instead it will do some preparatory work by noting some peculiarities in the OECD position. For an impression of that position, read this post by OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, summarizing the review findings in the OECD (2015f) report. A quote from that text exempt of anything that might be recognizable as scientific humility:

  • [The report] documents methods to measure social and emotional skills and it uses innovative analytical methods to show how social and emotional skills are drivers of social outcomes, such as health, civic engagement, and subjective well-being.

    Perhaps most importantly, the report indicates that social and emotional skills are not just measurable, but also malleable. That means that schools, families and communities can play an active role in fostering these skills, they can be taught at home and school through adequate practices.

Scanning the OECD 2015f report, it is perfectly clear that there are at least two big issues regarding its scientific standing. The very first issue is the position of economists publishing on ‘non-cognitive skills’. The Bereiter-Scardamalia quote in the preceding blog already made it clear that ‘non-cognitive skills’ do not exist: there is no such thing as ‘non-cognitive’, and personality traits surely are not skills. It might just be the case that psychological claims by economists such as Heckman, Borghans and Ter Weel lack scientific grounding. Of course, economists can use results from psychological research. Research by Angela Duckworth on what she calls ‘grit’, or Carol Dweck on ‘growth mindset’, seems to be irresistible to scientists not schooled in psychology and its methodology. What economists, and the Platform Onderwijs 2032, conclude from psychological research might just be somewhat problematic, future blogs will have to go into that question. In the meantime: read some blogs that are critical on ‘non-cognitive skills’, see at the end of the references section. Today’s post by Kirschner & Neelen on motivation in education, for example, offers an apt illustration of misuse of the motivation concept, and of its debunking.

The second issue in the OECD report is the question whether these correlations of personality and measures of success in school and life are causal relations? If they are, which is not at all probable, the next question must be whether these personality characteristics can be influenced, trained, nudged, whatever. Can they? Psychologist intuition says there is not much room for influencing of any sort. Let alone the ethics of such invasion of privacy.
The idea of character education is not a new one, of course. Some critical thinking on the malleability of character by Edward L. Thorndike in his 1903 Educational Psychology: it is easy for educators to get the impression that character growth is a result of education, even if in fact education does contribute little or nothing. Personal development in the school years is an issue that lends itself to empirical research. The question then is: what does the research tell us about it? We know already what OECD’s Schleicher thinks of this question, or rather of its answers. Let’s however investigate ourselves, in a series of blogs to come.

some references from the OECD reviews, and related ones

Wiljan van den Berge, Remmert Daas, Anne Bert Dijkstra, Tahnee Ooms & Bas ter Weel (2014). Investeren in skills en competenties. Een voorstudie voor programmering van onderzoek en beleid. get pdf

  • [skills-platform, an initiative of the Dutch Department of Education OCW]
    Leden van het skills-platform: Jaco Bron (SLO), Lex Herweijer (SCP), Edwin Hubers (Nationaal Regieorgaan Onderwijsonderzoek), Monique van der Hoeven (SLO), Hans Kuhlemeier (Cito), Diederik Schonau (Cito), Monique Turkenburg (SCP), Monique Volman (UvA) en Jan van Weerden (Cito). Opdrachtgever (Directie Kennis OCW): André de Moor, Vera Pieterman en Merel Schogt.

Lex Borghans, Ron Diris & Bas ter Weel (2014). Persoonlijkheid voorspelt succes. Vermijd eenzijdige focus op cognitie. Investeringen in persoonlijke ontwikkeling verbeteren sociaal-economische uitkomsten. CPB Policy Brief. donload pdf [Twin study, in English: Kautz and others (OECD report), below).

Lex Borghans, Angela Duckworth, James J. Heckman & Bas ter Weel (2008). The economics and psychology of personality traits. NBER Working Paper 13810. pdf also published in The Journal of Human Resources abstract.

Character education conference: contents now available including the Geneva Declaration. website.

Angela Duckworth (2016). Grit. The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. info

Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager (2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes Educational Researcher, 44 237-251. open access

Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews & Dennis R. Kelly (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.pdf

H. C. J. Duijker (1976). De ideologie der zelfontplooiing. Pedagogische Studiën, 53, 358-373. open access

  • Samenvatting In vele geschriften over de reorganisatie van het onderwijs worden als belangrijke, veelal zelfs als primaire doelstellingen genoemd: zelfverwerkelijking, zelfontplooiing e.d. De betekenis van deze termen wordt niet uitgelegd, doch blijkbaar als bekend voorondersteld. Als men echter de herkomst dezer begrippen nagaat, ontdekt men dat zij stammen uit een veelszins omstreden, empirisch nauwelijks gesteunde theorie. Aanvaarding van deze theorie heeft bovendien consequenties die in strijd zijn met hedendaagse opvattingen inzake gelijkheid en gelijkwaardigheid. Gewezen wordt op de gevaren die aan het ondoordacht gebruik van deze termen kleven; het onderwijs krijgt taken toebedeeld, wier uitvoering, bij gebrek aan hanteerbare maatstaven, niet anders dan op willekeurige, oncontroleerbare, dat wil ook zeggen: op potentieel onbillijke wijze kan plaatsvinden. Die gevaren worden te ernstiger, naarmate de school zich meer lijkt te ontwikkelen in de richting van een ‘total institution’.

Carol Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, & Geoffrey L. Cohen with the valuable assistance of David Paunesku and David Yeager (2014). Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning. Paper prepared for the Gates Foundation. get pdf

Will Hazell (Nov 10, 2017). Carol Dweck: the three biggest misconceptions about growth mindset. tes blog

James J. Heckman & Tim D. Kautz (June 2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. NBER Working Paper No. 18121. get pdf

James J. Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto & Peter Savelyev (2013). Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes. The American Economic Review, 103, 2052-86. pdf [“Experimentally induced changes in personality traits explain a sizable portion of adult treatment effects.” ???? ]

James J. Heckman, Jora Stixrud & Sergio Urzua (2006). The effects of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24, 411-482. get pdf

Willem K. B. Hofstee (1994). Who should own the definition of personality? European Journal of Personality, 8, 149-162.

    Testing for personality characteristics —soft skills — is tricky business. So, what are people like Heckman talking about, really?

Tim D. Kautz, James J. Heckman, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel & Lex Borghans (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 110, OECD Publishing. get pdf

Patrick C. Kyllonen, Anastasiya A. Lipnevich, Jeremy Burrus & Richard D. Roberts (2014). Personality, Motivation, and College Readiness: A Prospectus for Assessment and Development. Educational Testing Service ETS Research Report Series ISSN 2330-8516. download here

Patrick C. Kyllonen (2016). Designing tests to measure personal attributes and noncognitive skills. In Suzanne Lane, Mark R. Raymond & Thomas M. Haladyna Handbook of test development (190-211). proof

  • A useful but technocratic — ethical concerns are absent — review of the literature. Noncognitive skills here are, for example, attitudes, personality characteristics. Problematic are the causal roles attributed to noncognitive skills (no scientific support). For example, the opening sentence of the Summary and Conclusions section: “The importance of noncognitive attributes, such as personality attitudes and values, and social, emotional and self-management skills has long been acknowledged because of their role in driving success in education and in the workplace.” I am not sure what Kyllonen is hinting at here: does he only mention a piece of folk psychology, or does he himself believe in this causal relation and its direction? In the balance: this is a highly informative chapter, gives many crucial insights. Keep thinking critically, however, while reading. For example, mention is made of publications by Heckman and others, without any indication of the tense relation, if a relation there is, with mainstream psychological and educational research.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Michaela Horvathova, Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills) (2015). Review study OECD Dutch Curriculum: Onderwijs2032. Personal development. pdf (review study commissioned by the Platform Education 2032) d

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills. Paris: OECD Publishing. get pdf f

  • Increasing deciles of cognitive skills has a strong impact on enhancing access to education and labour market outcomes, while increasing deciles of social and emotional skills has a strong impact on improving social outcomes such as health, experience of anti-social behaviour and subjective well-being. (…) Successful interventions tend to focus on raising skills that enable people to achieve goals, work with others and manage emotions, with conscientiousness, sociability and emotional stability appearing particularly important. [from the lead, chapter 2]
  • Social and emotional skills play a particularly important role in skills formation since they not only drive future development of social and emotional skills but also cognitive skills. (…) Programmes specifically designed to raise social and emotional skills in schools have shown positive results in the short term but there are rarely long-term rigorous evaluations. [from the lead, chapter 4 Learning contexts that drive skills formation

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

Andreas Schleicher (March 8, 2015; revised May 8, 2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills. huffingtonpost

Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. webpages.

Paul Tough (2012). How children succeed. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. Dutch edition: (2015). Een kwestie van karakter. Waarom doorzettingsvermogen en nieuwsgierigheid belangrijker zijn dan IQ. Business Contact.

David S. Yaeger, Carol S. Dweck, and others (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 374-391. Special Section: Motivating Classroom Learning. researchgate

blogs critical of character education (involving grit, mindset)

Scott Alexander (April 8, 2015). No clarity around growth mindset. blog [more than 200 comments]

Julian Baggini (January 15, 2016). State school pupils lack confidence – you won’t fix that in the classroom. opinion

Štěpán Bahník, Marek Vranka (2017). Growth mindset is not associated with scholastic aptitude in a large sample of university applicants. Personality and Individual Differences, 117, 139-143. abstract

  • The applicants, of course, are self-selected. In the group of applicants individuals with fixed mindsets as well as low academic achievements might be missing, underrepresented. bw

Gert Biesta (6 oktober 2015). Onderwijs moet de leerling meer vormen. pdf

Carl Binder (1988). Precision Teaching: Measuring and attaining exemplary academic achievement. Youth Policy, 10(7), 12-15. pdf [via @ThinkReadTweet]

Adi Bloom (February 12, 2016). Government plan to teach children grit is flawed, suggests global education expert John Hattie. blog TES

Donald Clark (January 7, 2015). Character education – an assassination. blog

Marcus Credé (May 18, 2016). No evidence that grit improves performance, Iowa State analysis finds. post

  • Marcus Credé, Michael C. Tynan & Peter D. Harms (accepted 2016). Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. accepted version

David Denby (June 21, 2016). The limits of “grit”. The New Yorker culture desk blog

David Didau (July 10, 2014). Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? blog

David Didau (October 24, 2015). Is growth mindset pseudoscience? blog

Benjamin Doxtdator (April 23, 2017). The Mindset Mindset: Passion and Grit as Emotional Labour. blog

Angela Duckworth (March 26, 2016). Don’t Grade Schools on Grit. Sunday Review, opinion opinion

Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager (May 2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes. Educational Researcher, 44, 237-252. abstract [ook in]

Carol Dweck (January 18, 2017). Growth mindset is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house. blog

Kathryn Ecclestone (2007). Resisting images of the ‘diminished self’: the implications of emotional well-being and emotional engagement in education policy. Journal of Education Policy, 22, 455–470. abstract.

Heather Fearn (June 1, 2015). The Hydra. blog [“. . . or ‘Weikart and Schweinhart’s [Perry] High/Scope Preschool Curriculum comparison Study Through Age 23’ and Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 (2005)” critical of Heckman’s work on ‘non-cognitive skills’]

Shane vander Hart (June 28, 2016). Activists Challenge Plan for NAEP to Assess Student “Mindsets”. blog

John Hattie (June 28, 2017). Misinterpreting the Growth Mindset: Why We’re Doing Students a Disservice. EdWeek. blog

  • Before I revealed my concerns about the generalised claims about growth mindsets, Carol said that in every session she talked about under what conditions growth mindset can work, what kinds of people it best works with, and she noted that developing a “growth mindset is the most fixed mindset idea” of the lot.

Christian Jarrett (2016) Twin study raises doubts about the relevance of “grit” to children’s school performance. post

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (May 17, 2016). Close the stable doors: Effects of motivation and engagement on learner achievement? post

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (July 5, 2016). To Grit or Not to Grit: That’s the Question blog

Alfie Kohn (August 16, 2015). The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system. How a promising but oversimplified idea caught fire, then got coopted by conservative ideology. blog

Diane Ravitch (January 27, 2015). Jeff Snyder: What’s wrong with teaching “grit”? blog

Jason Rentfrow & Robert de Vries (January 14, 2016). A Winning Personality. post

Kalli Rimfeld (February 12, 2016). Why a bit of grit won’t get children higher grades. blog

  • Kaili Rimfeld, Yulia Kovas, Philip S. Dale & Robert Plomin (2016). True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now available free access pdf.

Ethan Ris blog (Post written by Ethan Ris, a doctoral candidate in education at Stanford University. His research is on the history and practice of reform in both K-12 and higher education.)

Jane Robbins and Karen Effrem (October 19, 2016). Schools ditch academics for emotional manipulation. The Federalist. blog

Nicole Shechtman Angela H. DeBarger Carolyn Dornsife Soren Rosier & Louise Yarnall (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. pdf of draft

Nicholas Tampio (June 2, 2016). Teaching ‘grit’ is bad for children, and bad for democracy. blog

Stephen Tierney (). Growth Mindset: The Latest Silver Bullet? blog

Jerry Useem (May 2016). The problem with teaching ‘grit’ to poor kids? They already have it. Here’s what they really need. Is Grit Overrated? The downsides of dogged, single-minded persistence. blog (The Washington Post, Valerie Straus) (Might there not be more problems with ‘grit’ than problems ‘grit’ helps solve? ‘One issue only’ ed psychology. b.w.)

Johannes Visser (18 mei 2016). Hoe de regering de macht over het onderwijs kwijtraakte. De Correspondent artikel

Herman G. van de Werfhorst (2016). Vocational and Academic Education and Political Engagement: The Importance of the Educational Institutional Structure. Comparative Education Review abstract & full text temporarily

Grover J. ‘Russ’ Whitehurst (June 9, 2016). More on soft skills: Time to Flit the grit. Brookings. blog

Ben Wilbrink (May 2016). Duckworth: ‘Grit’. The 1st words: psychology the science of secret of success. & Duckworth found it. Twitter feed

Ben Williamson (September 14, 2015). Feeling Machines: The Psychopedagogies of Emotion-maximizing Media. blog

Ben Williamson (Nov 13, 2017). Selling Social-emotional Learning. blogs

  • Its origins are in psychological theories that emphasize personal qualities and character strengths rather than challenging the social, political and economic determinants of inequalities in student outcomes, and which are now shaping practices in classrooms at large scale. [Social Emotional Learning] SEL is the focus for concerted lobbying by organizations which wish to hold schools accountable to standardized social-emotional outcomes, and which have begun to script standards for SEL programs and applications. It has become a priority for policy influencers and government departments which see SEL interventions as ways of cultivating “valuable” qualities in young people — such as military-style service or skills for the digital economy.

Ben Williamson (Jan 16, 2018). PISA for personality testing – the OECD and the psychometric science of social-emotional skills blog

Daniel T. Willingham (Summer 2016). “Grit” Is Trendy, but Can It Be Taught? Ask the Cognitive Scientist blog

Kate Zernike (February 29, 2016). blog (The New York Times)

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order


Een gedachte over “Personal development: OECD’s social and emotional skills. Is it science?

  1. Pingback: Assessment in education: Myths | Educational test item design

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