Openness and Curiosity: Oceans Apart

Yesterday my wife Sue received an alert to an Economist blog post about James Heckman.
James had given a talk at the Centre for Economic Performance that was co-hosted by the Young Foundation and the Studio Schools Trust.
The title of James’ talk was Creating a More Equal and Productive Britain.
The summary note of his talk records that Professor Heckman discussed that openness and curiosity have a greater effect on academic outcomes than IQ scores. He argued that:

contrary to long-held assumptions that these skills cannot be measured – the evidence is available and should be incorporated much more actively into spending decisions –  particularly in times of cuts.

I liked the case James made for early investment in these skills, “through character education in schools targeted primarily at less advantaged pupils and proactive family policy”.
These character skills are:
Openness (curiosity, willing to learn)
Consciousness (staying on task)
Extroversion (outgoing, friendly)
Agreeableness (helpful)
Neuroticism (attention to detail, persistence).
Madeleine Bunting observes that:

These are the skills that enable children to learn; without them even the best teachers can do little. These are the skills that are predictive of outcomes such as educational achievement, obesity, offender rates, employment and smoking. The single biggest predictor of longevity and school achievement is conscientiousness – which is effectively a form of self-control.

James’ audio of the talk, the slides he used for his presentation and a 2011 paper on Personality Psychology and Economics are available on the Young Foundation’s website. I noted in the paper James and his co-authors observe that:

There is a small but growing body of intervention studies that establish that personality traits can be altered over long periods of time in response to interventions. Some of the major effects of early childhood intervention programs appear to operate through their lasting effects on personality. Family investment decisions also change personality.

By chance the Economist post took me to Katharine Birbalsingh‘s book. This link to Katherine’s writing came a few days after listening to Allan Brahminy.
Katherine’s website home page starts with these two paragraphs:

Katharine Birbalsingh has been teaching in the state school system in London for over a decade. Her dream is for all schools to become interesting and exciting places of learning, where children feel safe, happy and free to aim to be the best that they can be.
Children should be challenged to achieve all that they can and should be rewarded when they do. She wants the children in her care to have a sense of responsibility, to have a sense of ownership of their school, their lives, and their futures.

Allan runs a centre based in the Northern Territory, designed to rehabilitate profoundly troubled young people. “For many of these young hardened criminals and drug addicts, the Brahminy program is their last resort. They’ve been through the system and spat out the other side.” ABC Television is broadcasting a three-part series, Outback Kids, about Allan’s work.
The Brahminy Foundation’s Social Justice Statement is:

Brahminy recognizes that not all people and young people share equally in the benefits of society, and it is imperative that options exist for those most disadvantaged.
Therefore, all people and young people involved with Brahminy:

  • Will be supported without discrimination.
  • Should be treated with respect so that their dignity as individuals is preserved.
  • Should be recognized as people capable of making decisions and choices for their own lives.

I understand that James, Katherine and Allan have different approaches to “meaningful difference” and that there are contentious issues around Katherine and Allan’s work.
However all three have helped me reflect on James’s points that:

  • Adversity gets under the skin and determines the biology of the child
  • Society must supplement the parenting resources of troubled families
  • Prevention not remediation

James’ concluding slide indicates just how early the work must start:

I am keen to ensure that children’s learning is playful too. Recent research reports suggest that inactivity is having an enormous impact on wellbeing.
Photo Credit
Family picnicking under a tree
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  1. Very interesting and inspiring post. I think playfulness should be at the heart of all we do because it seems to give us access to the present as well as the future- by allowing us to enjoy the moment and learn without knowing.

    • Thank you for finding the post, Beth. I think your Treasure Basket idea was a catalyst for my thinking about early play experiences.

  2. Playfulness is a very important tool in working with youth particularly youth at risk, teachers – youth workers to parents require playfulness in their toolbox or they are kidding themselves. Cheers Allan Brahminy


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