When and Where Students Acquire Skills

Nowadays, there is an obvious increased emphasis among education reformers on students acquiring skills. There is that favorite phrase "21st Century Skills". A committee from the United States National Academies concluded that these skills can be divided into three categories: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Interpersonal skills include teamwork and communication while intrapersonal skills are exemplified by resilience and conscientiousness. Among these skills, conscientiousness has been shown to be most strongly correlated with positive life outcomes: fruitful employment, educational attainment, good health, longer life expectancy, and low criminal behavior. The following figure compiled by Heckman and Kautz in their recently released working paper, "Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition", shows that in fact only conscientiousness appears to correlate with job performance in a statistically significant manner:

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"Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition"
While cognitive skills appear to be important, the above chart shows that character also counts. Of course, life is not just about job performance. It is only expected that other character skills become significant in other activities.

It is important to categorize and determine where and when students can optimally acquire and learn skills. Cognitive skills, which include both fluid intelligence (the rate at which people learn) and crystallized intelligence (acquired knowledge), are developed and acquired by a child even at an early age. Character skills, on the other hand, seem to take more time. These appear to be much more malleable even beyond the adolescent years. This distinction is important if a more effective basic education is desired. One of the authors of this new working paper, Nobel laureate James Heckman, is a strong advocate of early childhood education programs so it is not surprising that this new paper supports the previous finding of how effective high quality preschool programs are. This new paper is indeed an extension of Heckman's previous work. It goes one step further than just analyzing early childhood education and looks at the overall picture of basic education, from preschool to highschool, from cognition to character. The recommendations are provided quite early in the document:

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"Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition"

The first insight is extremely important. It shows what is necessary for schools to emphasize when student outcomes are not good. If a child is not learning cognitive and character skills then the only intervention that might work is one in which the school provides the missing influence of a good home. Teachers do not only teach a curriculum. Teachers are the children's parents inside the classroom....


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