Personality and the Five Factor Model

January 14, 2015 Jonathan E. Martin
Personality and the Five Factor Model

The importance of character and personality traits, to use the common parlance, received prominent attention in a recent issue of the New York Times. The piece, entitled “Should Schools Teach Personality?” by Anna North, draws upon new research by Australian psychologist and scholar Arthur Poropat.

The Griffith University professor has become a leading figure in tying “personality” to educational achievement, and does so with a focus on what is commonly known as the Big Five personality “traits” (aka the FFM: Five Factor Model). The Five Factors are captured with the acronym OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (aka Emotional Stability).

Poropat has conducted multiple extensive meta-analysis studies, and has found consistently that, as North wrote in the Times, “Both conscientiousness (which he defines as a tendency to be “diligent, dutiful and hardworking”) and openness (characterized by qualities like creativity and curiosity) are more highly correlated with student performance than intelligence is.”

Arthur PoropatArthur Poropat

This finding has extraordinary implications for educators, to be sure; for admission officers, it elevates considerably the importance of assessing these personality attributes when seeing to predict academic success among applicants. It is important to note that Poropat’s most recent research, explained in a journal article entitled “Other-rated personality and academic performance: Evidence and implications,” finds that other-ratings (teachers, parents, peers) of these attributes are more closely correlated with academic performance than self-reports.

In the above paragraphs, we follow the language of the research, journal article, and New York Times piece in calling these attributes “personality,” but it is important to note a massive semantic issue at stake here. The term “personality” connotes to many readers and listeners something very fixed; permanent, even, in the makeup of an individual, and hence not subject to development or change. (This is why I put “personality” and “trait” above in quotation marks.) But that is now what psychologists are finding in regards to these “personality traits” - it is indeed quite the opposite. To quote Poropat, “Personality has been demonstrated to change over time to a far greater extent than intelligence.” Readers, we beg of you: don’t fall into a semantic trap of thinking that the term personality in this context is, as Grant Wiggins wrote recently dismissing the importance of this research, “a fixed idiosyncratic mix.” It’s not.

Personality is both more important to academic success and more responsive to intervention than intelligence, researchers are finding. It has to become more important to our work of teaching and evaluating students.

A final note about this research: As has been reported, SSATB is working with ETS to develop a new noncognitive strengths assessment tool for use in admission and beyond in our schools. The approach being taken is to build the assessments based on evidence-based techniques from the Five Factor Model, using in particular conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness as the underpinning foundations for the attributes to be measured. So the Poropat research as reported in the Times has particular significance for our work. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Principal Jonathan E. Martin Educational Services (AZ) Jonathan Martin has 15 years experience as an independent school head, most recently as Head of St. Gregory College Preparatory School (AZ). He holds degrees from Harvard University (BA, Government, cum laude); Starr King School for the Ministry (M.Div., Unitarian ministry preparation); and the University of San Francisco School of Education (MA, Private School Administration). In 2008, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He previously headed Saklan Valley School (CA) and Maybeck High School (CA). In the first stage of his educational career, he taught History, Social Studies, and English at Maybeck, and served in a role equivalent to Dean of Students. From 2010-12 he was a member of the board, and Program & Professional Development Chair, of the Independent School Association of the Southwest (ISAS). He was a contributor to the new National Association of Independent Schools publication A Strategic Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future.

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