February 25, 2014 7:12 pm

Learn from Google, not from ‘Foxconn’

We must not discount ‘non-cognitive’ skills, or what your mother might call ‘character’

In January I visited my old school in Edinburgh, where I met four pupils from its gifted and talented programme. When I asked the 12-year-olds what they had been doing that day, one explained they were rewriting fairy tales. Her friend picked up the thread; once upon a time Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, had turned Jasmine, the heroine from Aladdin, into a similarly semi-aquatic character. Jasmine drowned. This ploy was meant to clear the way for Ariel to seduce Aladdin. Unfortunately for the princess, he turned out to be gay. His marriage to Prince Charming was imminent, continued another pupil. The End.

This story would not score well on the Programme for International Student Assessment. Pisa compares student achievement in OECD countries. Its latest results have worried western governments and parents; Chinese pupils, even those from poor backgrounds, are scoring higher than most of their American and European peers. Perhaps I should be horrified that the clever kids I met were sounding more like Roald Dahl than mathematicians.

But I am not. For a start, these pupils will probably do just fine in their maths exams. The Pisa results are flawed. Chinese findings are marred by unrepresentative samples and a lack of transparency. Tom Loveless, a Brookings researcher, says that he trusts other OECD countries but “I have no such faith in Pisa scores from China”. Pisa is often inaccurately interpreted; ranking countries by results misses the fact that slight differences are not statistically significant.

Still, the general trend – east Asian students outsmarting western pupils on standardised tests, especially for mathematics – is probably right. Should we worry?

I worry about entrenched inequity in Britain’s education system and the difficulty of attracting good teachers to poor areas outside London. But I suspect that the likes of the storytellers will continue to excel.

Do not take my word for it. (Even though I went to school and therefore passed the unofficial threshold for commenting on education policy.) In an interview in Sunday’s New York Times, Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice-president of people operations, explained what he looked for when recruiting people to join the technology company.

For its technical roles, Google naturally prioritises candidates’ coding ability. For its other jobs, Mr Bock says he looks for four attributes. First, “learning ability”, as distinct from test scores or standard measures of intelligence, which he says are “useless”. Instead, Google is looking for its hires to show creative and lateral thinking, and the capacity to combine disparate pieces of information.

Banx cartoon

Second, what Mr Bock calls “emergent leadership”, which seems to mean knowing when to lead in a group setting and when to follow others. The third and fourth attributes are “humility” and “ownership”.

Even if we are sceptical about the abstract nouns involved, Mr Bock’s criteria suggest that the candidates for the high-paid jobs of today and tomorrow must show more than rote learning, memory skills and exam success. They might be the pupils who do well on Pisa scores but they might also be those who can work together in front of an audience to deconstruct and recombine Hans Christian Andersen stories.

The danger is that Britain and other countries lust after a Foxconn model of education when they would be better off listening to Google. There is hope. The Year of Code, a campaign to improve Britons’ coding skills, is proving popular. Technology should also allow schools to offer pupils a more bespoke education.

More importantly, policy makers seem to be finding ways of acting on the research of James Heckman, the Nobel laureate, who has shown the importance of soft skills to future earnings. Last week UK politicians backed a report by CentreForum emphasising the importance of such “non-cognitive” skills, or what your mother might call “character”.

Ironically, parents and politicians in east Asian countries are moving away from their feted robotic model, just as western politicians move towards it. Even the Steiner school movement is growing in popularity among the Chinese middle class, according to Ian Johnson of New Yorker magazine. Singapore is adapting its curriculum. “We must put character development at the core of our education system,” says Heng Swee, the city state’s minister of education.

The curriculum’s reading list will need a bildungsroman. But it should save time for alternative fairy tales.

john.mcdermott@ft.com

Twitter: @johnpmcdermott

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