A new approach to look beyond academic learning

Young girl holding her fingers in the shape of a square in front of her face and looking through them with one eye. Her hands are covered in paint.

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– The OECD has opened a new chapter on measuring social and emotional skills in reliable and comparable ways.
– Our Survey on Social and Emotional Skills found some of these skills are positively related to academic performance.
– The findings of this world-first survey outline why it is important for education systems to strive for a holistic development of their students.

With PISA, the OECD has a long history of establishing global metrics for academic schooling outcomes. But these are just part of the story of what makes individuals, businesses and countries successful. For the first time the OECD is now publishing an international comparative assessment of social and emotional skills that complements the picture. We know that employers greatly value such skills and many education and skills systems seek to prioritise their development. But it has always proved difficult to measure such skills in reasonably reliable and comparable ways, and what isn’t measured rarely gets improved. With this work, we are opening a new chapter on this.

The work is still embryonic but it is a start and covers a range of outcomes which research shows are highly predictive for labour-market and social success, such as open-mindedness (including curiosity and creativity), task performance (including responsibility, self-control and persistence), sociability and assertiveness, collaboration as well as stress resistance and emotional control.

Younger students tend to report higher levels of social and emotional skills

The interconnected development of cognitive, social and emotional skills starts during early infancy and continues throughout one’s lifespan. However, unlike academic learning, the development of social and emotional skills in students does not follow a steady upward trend. A striking, but not unexpected, result from the survey is that all 15-year-old students, irrespective of their gender and social background, reported lower social and emotional skills on average than their 10-year-old counterparts. Parents and educators ratings confirmed the dip in social and emotional skills as students grow older. Also, students’ creativity and curiosity were found to be lower among 15-year-olds than among 10-year-olds. While developmental factors may play a role here, this might also partly derive from the fact that education systems often expect compliance from students, with the potential consequence of driving out curiosity and creativity as students grow older and stay longer in the education system.

Chart showing that, on average, younger students (10-year-olds) report higher levels of social and emotional skills than older students (15-year-olds)

The gender gap in social and emotional skills

It is noteworthy that age-related differences in creative self-concept are much more pronounced among girls than boys (in contrast, this is not true of intellectual curiosity, i.e. the emotional disposition towards learning). By age 15, girls, on average, report significantly lower creativity than boys. Yet, parents’ and teachers’ ratings were similar across genders in both age groups. It is possible that this pattern is due to boys who are over-confident in their creative skills, whereas girls, on average, have more realistic evaluations. But if adolescents associate creative talent (“having a good imagination”, “finding solutions that others don’t see”) with men more than women, this will be reflected in gendered career choices where fewer girls will opt for educational tracks and, later, jobs where they expect creative talent to be required. Parents and teachers can help both boys and girls develop a realistic assessment of their strengths and counteract potentially intimidating stereotypes by highlighting role models for both genders and helping students see creativity as a learnable skill rather than a fixed trait.

Another important finding is that students’ social and emotional skills differ by social background and gender. Girls reported higher levels of skills related to task performance like responsibility and achievement motivation. They also reported higher levels of skills that are important in an interconnected world, like empathy, co-operation, and tolerance. In contrast, boys exhibited higher emotional regulation skills like stress resistance, optimism and emotional control as well as important social skills like assertiveness and energy. Students from advantaged backgrounds reported higher social and emotional skills than their disadvantaged peers in every skill that was measured and in all cities participating in the survey. Potentially, parents from more advantaged backgrounds could make greater investments in their children’s social and emotional skills. But also, students with a less favourable life might have had more challenges to overcome and fewer opportunities and less support to develop these skills. Of course, these findings are at an aggregate level, individual trajectories might well be different.

Students from advantaged backgrounds reported higher social and emotional skills than their disadvantaged peers in every skill that was measured

The survey also shows that students who think of themselves as highly creative tend to also report high levels of intellectual curiosity and persistence, two skills that are likely to play an important role in creative achievements, big and small. At the same time, students with a strong creative self-concept are a relatively diverse group of students in terms of self-control or in terms of emotional regulation skills, which have the strongest association with academic achievement and well-being, respectively. This means that while there are certain commonalities among students with a strong creative self-concept, the diversity of their needs and preferences should not be under-estimated. On the contrary, it may be beneficial to provide opportunities to practice and learn about one’s creative potential in a variety of formats, such as part of individual and group activities, in competitive and in co-operative formats.

Some social and emotional skills are positively related to academic performance

Social and emotional skills are not just important in their own right. The results from the survey show that they are also important predictors of school grades across age cohorts, subjects, and cities. In particular, being intellectually curious and persistent are the social and emotional skills most strongly related to school grades for both 10- and 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and the arts. These findings emphasise the importance of not only dedication in pursuing predetermined goals, even in the face of difficulties, but also cultivating an intellectual curiosity for a diverse range of topics. External forces like parents’ or teachers’ expectations can drive persistence. External drivers, however, can disappear or change over time but intellectual curiosity is a powerful intrinsic motivator. Those students who are curious about a diverse set of topics and love learning new things are better equipped to face difficulties and are more likely to reach their goals. Students with the same social status, gender, and cognitive abilities who have better social and emotional skills are more likely to obtain better grades. The same is true for higher educational expectations.

Chart showing that, amongst 15-year-olds, some skills are positively related, and others are negatively related to students' academic performance

The survey did not just measure social and emotional skills, but also important well-being outcomes. The results show that students’ social and emotional skills are closely related to students’ psychological well-being, even after accounting for social status and gender. This is particularly the case for stress resistance, optimism and emotional control. Being optimistic is consistently related to both a higher level of life satisfaction and current psychological well-being across cities. Stress resistance and being optimistic are strongly related to a lower level of test anxiety. Students who assessed themselves as being more stress resistant, optimistic and in control of their emotions reported higher levels of psychological well-being.

Schools and parents play an important role in fostering these skills

The learning environment and climate at school also matter. The results from the survey show that students’ perceptions of a competitive school climate and high expectations from parents or teachers are related to a higher level of psychological well-being for 10-year-olds and to a higher level of test anxiety among 10- and 15-year-olds. Some level of test anxiety is normal and can be helpful to stay focused. But too much anxiety can result in emotional and physical distress, and worrying that can impair test performance. Results from PISA have shown that it is not the frequency of tests but rather a perceived lack of teacher support that determines how anxious students feel. Test anxiety can also be related to lack of preparation, previous poor test performances and fear of failure. When competitive learning environments and high expectations by others are not accompanied by adequate social and emotional support or learned strategies to cope with test anxiety, students may feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared to face challenges.

Chart showing that better student-teacher relations are linked with improved social and emotional skills

In preventing mental ill-health and promoting psychological well-being, schools have typically focused on teaching students effective study habits such as time management and work schemes, effective coping strategies and techniques to relax. More regular and more adaptive testing can build students’ feeling of competence and sense of control. Furthermore, teacher support such as adapting lessons to the class’ needs and knowledge level, providing individual help for struggling students and showing confidence in students’ abilities might help reduce students’ test anxiety.

Helping students achieve their maximum social-emotional potential

Some of the skills measured by the survey, such as curiosity, emotional control, and co-operation have an implicit positive impact on a wide range of outcomes and contexts both at the individual and societal level. In other cases, some skills such as being more outgoing and sociable may depend more specifically on the student’s goals. For example, in the job market, extraversion might be more relevant for entrepreneurial and management roles where social interaction is crucial. Introversion might suit technical and professional jobs better where attention to detail is required. If someone were introverted but wanted to go into sales, learning how to be more comfortable in social interactions would be useful. Conversely, someone who was extroverted but interested in developing machine-learning algorithms might benefit from working on strategies to remain focussed and avoid social interactions. Like musicians in an orchestra, students can reach their maximum social-emotional potential when they find their role in the concert, and train until they become proficient.

All this underlines why it is important for education systems to strive for a holistic development of their students. This includes more than the development of academic skills. It recognises the importance of social and emotional skills and students’ well-being and social relations in the school environment. When students perceive that they are treated in a fair way, when the school and its staff help students develop a sense of belonging, when they provide for a disciplined, structured and co-operative environment, when the environment is supportive and less punitive, students’ social and emotional skills develop better and they are less likely to engage in violent and negative interactions.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova