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Building Character Skills – What Works?

31st Oct 2016

A wide variety of skills are needed for success in life. The traditional focus of policymakers on academic achievement as a marker of people’s talents can cause them to miss the importance of non-cognitive skills, also called character skills. There is now growing evidence that these skills – which include things like conscientiousness, motivation, and creativity – predict an array of important life outcomes in areas like employment, earnings, and health. They can even contribute to academic performance above and beyond the effects of cognitive skills. Furthermore, these skills are growing in importance in the workplace.

Our Sydney team and the NSW Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) recently invited four prominent panellists to share their views on what this body of research means for policymakers and educators. They treated us to a fascinating discussion, which we have summarised below.


Our panellists, from left to right: Mary Ann O’Loughlin, Deputy Secretary, NSW Department of Premier & Cabinet, Mark Scott, Secretary, NSW Department of Education, Professor Colm Harmon, School of Economics, University of Sydney, Zhi Soon, Director, Education and Skills, The Behavioural Insights Team

Character skills matter as much as IQ, if not more

The evidence is clear: character skills are predictive of a range of important life outcomes, from higher socioeconomic status and income to fewer drug and health problems. Importantly, these skills can potentially be improved through training and effort. While developing cognitive skills such as raw mathematical ability remains challenging and costly, the greater malleability of character skills suggests they can provide a greater return on investment.

Timing matters

The early years are the most important period for the formation of both cognitive and character skills. However, the window of opportunity for improving character skills is wider than that for improving IQ. While cognitive development trajectories become difficult to shift after the first decade of life, some character skills do not reach comparable stability until age 50. This means that there is a role for interventions to improve character skills even into adolescence and beyond, such as our recent work on improving non-cognitive skills in further education (FE) colleges in the UK. We are now working with the NSW government to apply the lessons learned during that intervention to increasing apprenticeship completion rates.

Character skills are future proof

Employers consistently report in surveys that they highly value character skills such as the ability to work in a team, collaborate with others, and communicate effectively. Given that developments in technology and automation are anticipated to have profound and disruptive effects on workplaces of the future, the ability to work effectively in a team or be resilient in the face of change may become even more important over time.

There is work still to be done

We are now working with the UK Department for Education and the Education Endowment Foundation to further develop our understanding of character skills. This partnership will consolidate evidence on their importance, develop tools to measure them and distil best practices from existing programs designed to improve them.

We are keen to grow the evidence base in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region given the potential for global collaboration in this area. If you are interested in partnering or discussing this further, please get in touch at