Personality and the 5Cs

Some people appear to be better equipped to deal with setbacks than others and, therefore, to recover more successfully. Many students, for example, will cope effortlessly with challenging tasks and competing deadlines while others simply never seem to be able to get it together - they are always late handing in homework, arrive unprepared for lessons or daydream their way through education. The reasons for this relate to both aspects of personality and developmental maturity. The way in which people are able to regulate their emotions, resist distractions and remain on task, for example, is determined by both inborn personality traits and the extent to which such skills exist on a developmental trajectory - small children, therefore, are less skilled at delaying gratification and are more easily distracted than teenagers. This may be unrelated to cognitive abilities but, in all likelihood, their relationship is symbiotic.

Cognitive and non-cognitive skills: a false dichotomy?

Buoyancy is one of a number of skills described as non-cognitive, that is, skills that aren't specific to learning itself but can, nevertheless, enhance learning indirectly. The roots of non-cognitive skills lie in the writings of sociologists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis and their 1976 exploration of education in America (Bowles & Gintis, 1976). Bowles and Gintis use the phrase as a kind of catch-all to distinguish factors other than those measured by cognitive tests such as literacy and numeracy. The specific set of skills viewed as non-cognitive, however, depends largely upon the field of study. In psychology, these attributes are viewed through the lens of personality theory, most prominently, the traits that make up the Big 5 model of personality (described later in this chapter). In education, however, emphasis is placed on those skills directly related to academic success.

The educationalist view of non-cognitive skills, therefore, is somewhat wider than that of the psychologist and includes such things as academic behaviour, perseverance, mindset, learning strategies and social skills. These skills represent both affective and behavioural aspects of learning, such as the physical act of actually attending school, and adhering to the rules, self-discipline, sense of belonging, metacognitive strategies, goal setting and interpersonal skills. These skills develop differently to those viewed as cognitive. While non-cognitive skills develop over the lifespan (for example, people become better at paying attention and avoiding distractions, while conscientiousness, a personality trait, expands from childhood and peaks in our 50s and 60s), cognitive factors, such as IQ, peak in late adolescence before gradually declining (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman & Ter Weel, 2008).

This means that non-cognitive skills underpin the cognitive ones but can also be measured independently of them. Students with stronger non-cognitive skills have been shown to demonstrate higher academic achievement throughout schooling (Gabrieli, Ansel & Krachman, 2015), most likely due to the increase in attention, focus and planning. For example, intelligence as measured by IQ scores is most likely largely innate but won't necessarily lead to academic success in the absence of focus, self-motivation and determination. Academic behaviours such as regular attendance, completing homework and participation are all linked to higher levels of achievement, reinforcing the view that non-cognitive skills are highly influential on academic outcomes (Farrington et al., 2012). Therefore, well developed non-cognitive skills promote the development of cognitive skills and, importantly, many of the non-cognitive skills can be explicitly taught or implicitly nurtured.

While this distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive skills is useful, it has been argued that it creates a false dichotomy between so-called 'hard' cognitive abilities and psychosocial or 'soft' skills. Few aspects of human behaviour are devoid of cognition so it might be preferable to use other terms to better describe them. There is also an obvious relationship between non-cognitive skills and executive function, although the latter combines elements of both non-cognitive (for example, goal setting) and cognitive (working memory capacity).

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