The hard problems of soft-skills

Since the beginning of my teaching career, there has been periodic interest in how schools can explicitly modify the character of our students. My first encounter was emotional well-being and projects like SEAL. Reports appeared to suggest that SEAL had a small positive influence on children’s social and emotional development and it rapidly became a regular element in CPD.

However, I was interested to discover that some researchers were rather disturbed by the trend. In ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education’, Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes explore the concern that applying therapeutic methods in schools was becoming something of an orthodoxy:

“From demeaning and effectively compulsory ‘circle time’ in primary schools to ‘learning power’ programmes and peer mentoring in secondary schools to the endless monitoring and self-surveillance techniques in FE to the emphasis on vulnerability in the University the authors depict an educational world which has surrendered to therapy ‘professionals’.”

In an article for the Guardian, Ecclestone complains of the lack of suitable controls in some of the studies which purport to be effective:

“Yet research in the UK and the US challenges the theoretical validity of concepts such as “emotional literacy” and “self-esteem” and shows little practical evidence of their benefits. Many of the evaluations that claim to show positive effects are carried out by those implementing the initiative in the first place. And carrying out an evaluation just after a programme has finished runs the risk of encouraging positive claims after something novel has been tried out.”

SEAL slowly lost its place in the limelight, but the desire to tweak the little personalities of our charges has hardly gone away. Perhaps in keeping with these more austere times, the interest switched to developing students’ ‘grit’ and ‘determination’.

One programme which reported success in this endeavour was the UK Resilience programme. The study reported attempts to improve children’s psychological well-being through resilience and the promotion of realistic thinking and coping skills. Cognitive behavioural therapy was an explicit part of the training:

“… the first cohort of facilitators took 10 days (five days of training, a weekend off, then another five days’ training). In the first week trainees became familiar with the adult-level CBT skills, and in the second week they studied the PRP curriculum and practised teaching it to others.”

Unfortunately, the original studies met with limited success:

“The UK Resilience Programme did have a small average impact on pupils’ depression scores, school attendance, and English and maths grades, but only in the short run (up to one-year follow-up). There was no average impact on any measure at two-year follow-up. This means that any improvements in pupils’ psychological well-being, attendance and attainment were short-lived, and by the time of the two-year follow-up (June 2010) pupils who had participated in UKRP workshops were doing no better on these outcomes than pupils who had not. This suggests that a single set of UKRP lessons is not enough to permanently change pupils’ outcomes on average.”

However, they did report that, though short-lived for the majority of children, the programme did have a greater impact upon some groups of children more than others; deprived and lower-attaining pupils, those with worse prior psychological health (particularly girls) appeared to receive greater benefit from the 18 hours or so of intervention received. There were, on the other hand, some potential limitations to the programme which pointed to some significant ethical issues for future research:

“While our quantitative findings suggest there was initially a statistically significant gain in the mental health and well-being of pupils, and many interviewees believed the programme was having a positive impact on their pupils, schools and facilitators should keep in mind the possibility that the programme could have a negative effect for individual pupils.”

“The role of facilitator can be emotionally demanding due to the distressing nature of some real life problems raised by pupils. Staff need to be adequately prepared for and supported throughout the programme in order to deal with these issues.”

The limited success of these CBT based training programmes hasn’t limited the appetite for seeking to intervene in our children’s ‘personality’ development in schools. The report by the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social mobility and later a highly publicised speech by Tristram Hunt led to a renewed media interest in the development of character and resilience. The Shadow Secretary for Education announced that there was “‘growing evidence that character can be taught.” In the article ‘Teaching character – but what sort of character?’the authors of the report he referred to concur:

“For instance, a study of 681 elementary schools in California showed that schools with higher total character-education implementation tended to have higher academic scores by a small but significant margin. Another U.S. study revealed that lessons in character indicate a potential 16% improvement in academic achievement. The third study found that character-development programmes improve an array of positive behaviours in addition to academic achievement.”

They did note that these studies required replication in a UK context (there are cultural differences between the UK and US that potentially limits the generalisability of these studies), but it appears that at least in the US they are finding some success with these interventions. However. their penultimate paragraph was especially interesting in light of the current debate around the morality of state school children:

“While there is no denying the fact that resilience helps one bounce back quickly from negative experiences and self-confidence makes one more efficacious in achieving one’s ends, those ‘virtues’ can be dangerous if they are untethered from any moral constraints. The missing element in the character make-up of the banksters in the run-up to the financial crisis, or the average heinous dictator, is clearly not a higher level of resilience and self-confidence. Happily, there is some indication in Hunt’s speech that politicians are waking up to the necessity for a normative conceptualisation of character, as he mentions both performance and moral virtues.”

Another rich vein of informal character modification is the rise in interest in so-called ‘Learning Dispositions’. Programmes like BLP and the ELLI have made considerable in-roads into school culture:

Learning Dispositions and Transferable Competencies: Pedagogy, Modelling and Learning Analytics
It’s quite clear that the authors believe in the paramount importance of traits like curiosity, resilience and strategic awareness – if children are to survive the challenges they face in later life:

“The acquisition of subject matter knowledge is no longer enough for survival and success in a society characterized by massive data flows, an environment in constant flux, and unprecedented levels of uncertainty.”

They accept there is some uncertainty regarding the precise definitions of these ‘dispositions’:

“Although the term ‘disposition’ is imprecise, both theoretically and in practice, it is widely agreed that it refers to a relatively enduring tendency to behave in a certain way …

… Our focus is on malleable dispositions that are important for developing intentional learners, and which, critically, learners can recognise and develop in themselves.”

This seems a little contradictory to me, but we are assured.

“Learning Power is a multi-dimensional construct that has come to used widely in educational contexts in the last ten years. It is derived from literature analysis, and interviews with educational researchers and practitioners about the factors, which in their experience, make good learners. The seven dimensions which have been identified harness what is hypothesised to be “the power to learn” — a form of consciousness, or critical subjectivity, which leads to learning, change and growth.”

In terms of evidence of efficacy, the ELLI team report a rather strange mix of results:

“Intuitively, one might hypothesise that learners who are curious, resilient, creative and strategic (i.e. in the terms of this paper, demonstrating learning power) should also record higher attainment in traditional tests, because they have, for instance, a much greater desire to learn, and ability to stretch themselves.”

This would seem logical. If these learning dispositions improve, then presumably children would learn more. However …

“The evidence for this remains inconclusive, to date. Consistent with this line of thought, one would predict ELLI to correlate positively with conventional attainment analytics, and indeed, several studies do report a positive correlation … This is an intriguing finding, but this relationship requires further interrogation: it might also be argued that more developed learning power should correlate negatively with higher test scores.”

Emphasis mine.

The authors explain that these negative correlations are undoubtedly due to the disparity between the way learners have developed their dispositions in ‘authentic’ learning contexts and the rigid, artificial conditions of school curricula and exams. Though it must be noted, the fact that both positive and negative correlations are cited as evidence of success could be accused of making the construct unfalsifiable.

The rather ‘mixed’ success of many of these programmes doesn’t appear to have put researchers off discovering the ‘magic bullet’ of character education. At the very least we can say the researchers have buckets of resilience themselves. It seems barely a month goes by without another character building programme being reported. The latest I’ve seen was this one:

“Levin envisions that character education will be woven into “the DNA” of KIPP’s classrooms and schools, especially via “dual purpose” instruction that is intended to explicitly teach both academic and character aims.” …

“Students rate themselves on character strengths, responding to prompts such as “kept working hard even when s/he felt like quitting” for grit; “remembered and followed directions” for self-control; and “showed enthusiasm” for zest. All of a student’s teachers in turn rate the student, resulting in an “Average Teacher Score.” The overall goal is to use the card as a catalyst for “growth-oriented conversations” during parent-teacher conferences with the student present.”

However, despite claims that KIPP will narrow the achievement gap it seems that there are still genuine questions about character education:

“There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character.  “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.””

Children develop complex attitudes, attributions and beliefs about the world from a wide variety of sources; not least their parents. So it’s likely that these explicit attempts to manipulate the personalities (or dispositions) of children won’t do any great harm. But I the profession is still left with some hard problems:

Firstly, I worry that teachers are increasingly being expected to take on the role of amateur cognitive therapist. There are some genuine ethical issues here aren’t there? A few hours training may be sufficient to take on the basics, but these experimental programmes must monitor children (and staff) for potentially negative impacts arising from the intervention. If these were medical trials, they might be cancelled if there was evidence of negative effects.

Secondly, there’s something of hollowness within these otherwise worthy sounding character traits. Yes, self-control and hardiness are useful traits to possess when weathering life’s storms, but as the last article notes:

“Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.”

In the end, I wonder whether we are missing something rather obvious. I wonder whether these broadly cognitive approaches overlook a very powerful source of character education in schools: social learning.

Arguably the greatest contribution a teacher makes to character education is as a role-model. The great thing about a good role model is that they’re … good. Children don’t just learn subject knowledge from teachers, they also see how we confront racism, challenge homophobia, support children who are victims of bullying, etc. Teachers are typically hard working, conscientious and compassionate people and I wonder if, in our rush to discover the panacea for the inequities of society, we have rather overlooked a more reliable source of character education in schools.

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9 Responses to The hard problems of soft-skills

  1. Andrew Sabisky says:

    This post illustrates perfectly how deeply unethical a lot of educational research is. In the case of cod-psychiatric interventions, it is far worse. These interventions are hardly ever piloted adequately before being rolled out as far as the tentacles of the creators can stretch. This would not matter so much if they had any kind of firm theoretical base, but of course they are either atheoretical, or rest on a foundation of nonsense, or both. Frankly, the lack of any kind of decent theory means that ethics boards should be killing them off before they even make it to pilot stage. This is exactly what ethics boards should be doing and exactly what they do not – a perfect illustration of why they are a pointless impediment to good research and a fervent enabler of bad. Any rotten flimflam can get through with sufficient high-flown altruistic verbiage.

    As you point out, there are real costs to this sorry business, not just in terms of the wasted time of pupils and schools (the researchers’s time may be rightly regarded as worthless anyway), but also in terms of the very real damage that can be done to students and teachers alike.


    • Thanks for commenting, Andrew.

      To be fair, some of them have more of an evidence base than others (CBT has a fairly good base, for example), but I completely agree that the ethical issues and the costs-benefits involved in these programmes needs greater scrutiny.


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