Nurturing a 21st Century skill set

New international research suggests educators can play a pivotal role in fostering children's non-cognitive skills, without breaking the school budget.

The OECD report, Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills, says schools can have an impact by adapting existing teaching and learning practices, and introducing new innovations, without significant additional effort or resources.

It points to evidence suggesting social and emotional skills – including perseverance, self-esteem, motivation and teamwork – can be effectively taught in standard curriculum subjects such as maths and languages.

Project-based or problem-based learning which incorporates problem solving based on real life situations is highlighted, although the report notes that even introducing these approaches 'at the margins' needs support at a whole school level, including from parents.

It also presents promising evidence from three US programs designed to raise non-cognitive skills. Tools of the Mind (for preschool and early primary children), which encourages role play and group learning, is one of the examples discussed.

Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD's Directorate for Education and Skills discusses the importance of non-cognitive skills in the 21st Century. 'Children and adolescents need a balanced set of cognitive, social and emotional skills in order to succeed in modern life,' he says in his foreword to the report.

'[Skills] such as perseverance, sociability and self-esteem have been shown to influence numerous measures of social outcomes, including better health, improved subjective wellbeing and reduced odds of engaging in conduct problems.

'Cognitive and socio-emotional skills interact and cross-fertilise, and empower children to succeed both in and out of schools.'

The report synthesises three years of OECD research and suggests next steps forward for policymakers, researchers, school administrators and the OECD.

'Parents, teachers and employers know that children who are talented, motivated, goal-driven and collegial are more likely to weather the storms of life, perform well in the labour market and consequently achieve lifetime success,' it says.

'One of the reasons behind the gap between the research and practitioner communities is the impression among teachers and school administrators that investing in social and emotional skills will involve significant additional efforts and resources. ... the experience in some countries suggests that this need not be the case. Enhancing social and emotional skills can be done hand in hand with ongoing efforts to enhance cognitive skills.'

Taking the role of mentor and learning facilitator is cited as one way for teachers to raise youngsters' self-esteem, motivation and emotional stability.

'Peers can also play a role, as children can learn a variety of social and emotional skills such as collaboration, negotiation and sociability from friends and classmates.'

Extracurricular activities such as sport and the arts, participation in school councils or classroom management, and life skills and workplace training for adolescents are also highlighted as approaches shown to have a positive impact.

It explores the link between cognitive (academic) and non-cognitive skills. '... the latest results from PISA 2012 show that higher self-belief, motivation and expectations are associated with better performance in literacy.

'For instance, girls' lower performance in maths literacy is associated with lower confidence in their ability to succeed in school than their male peers.'

The report goes on to say '[A child] who is very disciplined and persistent is likely to increase his or her maths skills more than a child with equal levels of maths skills but with lower levels of discipline and persistence. Discipline and persistence make it more likely that the child will diligently do the homework and gain more from it. Cognitive and social and emotional skills are thus tightly connected.'


OECD (2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills. OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Is there a program designed to raise non-cognitive skills in your school?

How are you measuring the development of students' social and emotional skills?

Could you incorporate project-based or problem-based approaches into the curriculum?