This post originally appeared on the Education Week blog Global Learning, May 21, 2015.

i’ve been working on various projects around noncognitive (social-emotional leaning and 21st century competency) assessments for the past three years, as some readers know, including for Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSAT-B) and for Index and its Mission Skill Assessment.  Recently the Asia Society published a new paper, A Rosetta Stone for NonCognitive Skills, which I co-authored with Richard Roberts, Ph.D., the former ETS research scientist who designed the Mission Skills Assessment.    The following was posted to EdWeek as a teaser of sorts for the full paper. 


“It’s become a Tower of Babel,” Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Chris Gabrieli said recently when presenting at the Brookings panel, “Ready to be Counted? Incorporating Noncognitive Skills into Education Policy.” Gabrieli listed the nearly dozen labels used to describe  21st century skills or noncognitive skills, including character, soft skills, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and many more.

It’s not just here in the U.S.: this is a global phenomenon. In one recent post, UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education examined the shift toward transversal competencies in the Asia-Pacific region. The OECD calls them skills for social progress.

These terms each come with a different list of associated skills, strengths, competencies, and attributes.   The table we’ve prepared below names almost 50 of these skills, and it isn’t even exhaustive.

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As the pendulum swings back from the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind, researchers, policymakers, and educators alike are returning their attention to the enormous importance of student affect, attitude, and effort, and their ability to self-control, collaborate, and commit themselves to learning.  Nearly every school system now recognizes that in order to have a world-class education system, students must be advancing in more than the cognitive and academic achievement domain.

To make the most of the opportunity to address the social and emotional skills gap, we have to be able to make sense of the Tower of Babel. How do we know how all these various skills and attributes relate to one another—and whether one group’s teamwork is another’s collaboration; one group’s work ethic is another’s responsibility?

The Big Five Factor Personality Model
There is a powerful way to reconcile, translate, and unify the myriad of terms and constructs that have emerged over the past decade. It isn’t new, and in fairness, in many psychology circles it is no secret, but it has been problematically underappreciated in education. It is the “Big Five” factor model of personality.

Under the assumption that all important matters in life have been named and are thus represented in our language, researchers in the 1930s searched Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1925 for English words that described human characteristics. In total, 18,000 English words were selected, with 4,500 being classified as descriptions of stable personal traits. They then analyzed the underlying patterns among them to reduce the massive list of traits, and studied personality data from different sources (e.g., interpersonal ratings, objective measures of daily behavior, and questionnaire results), and measured these traits in diverse populations to arrive at first 16, and then five, major personality factors.

These analyses consistently yielded five factors that were labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism/Emotional Stability, and Openness.

Even though they were first discovered in the English language, replication studies in other major languages resulted in the same five factors. Indeed, this research has proven the Big Five’s universality in the vast majority of countries, cultures, and languages across the world. In short, the Big Five play an important role in human nature, independent of the environment writ large. See below for the countries where the Big Five have thus far been replicated.

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