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Mapping Transversal/Non-Cognitive Skills in Education

“What are the most important skills a child today should be learning?”  When participants at UNESCO’s recent expert meeting on the future of education were asked this question, responses included critical thinking, creativity, resilience, core values and ethics. But when we look to school curriculum, are these “skills” really being encouraged effectively? How can we define these skills and how can they be measured, if they are measurable?

In a world where rapid change is inevitable, the capacity to learn, keep on learning and be adaptable to change is critical. Because of this, many countries of the Asia-Pacific region are beginning to realize the importance of integrating “transversal/non-cognitive” skills in schools in order to equip students for the future in a more holistic way. This is particularly the case in countries, such as Japan, where education has traditionally focused heavily on the high stake examinations and international assessment with potentially negative repercussions, particularly for the individual.

But even as countries make concerted effort to integrate these skills into education, there is still much uncertainty regarding how these skills can be imparted, what they include, if and how they can be assessed and measured, and whether the term “non-cognitive” -- given its connotation -- is actually even appropriate at all!

These were some of the challenging ideas presented to participants of the recent Asia-Pacific Education Research Institutes Network (ERI-Net) Seminar (7-8 March 2013, Bangkok, Thailand).

Supported by Korea Funds-in-Trust in partnership with the Global Scientific Information and Computing Center (GSIC), Tokyo Institute of Technology, the ERI-Net Seminar focused on two important topics: 1) the integration of so called “transversal/non-cognitive skills” in education  and 2) the transition from secondary to higher education.

For ERI-Net Coordinator, Satoko Yano, “transversal/non-cognitive skills” refers to a number of important skills that can be taught and that we all require to lead meaningful and productive lives.

“We think of cognitive skills as the ability to comprehend, retain and use formal education competencies such as numeracy, literacy, logic, scientific knowledge, and so on. Transversal/non-cognitive skills on the other hand, refer to social, behavioral and emotional competencies that facilitate one’s understanding of and participation in society,” she said.

As the ERI-Net meeting highlighted, the definition of transversal/non-cognitive skills include 1) Critical and innovative thinking, 2) Interpersonal skills, 3) Intrapersonal skills, 4) Global citizenship, 5) Physical and psychological health.

However, many different terms are used interchangeably to describe what the ERI-Net research team identified as “transversal/non-cognitive skills”. They include 21st century skills, soft skills, employability skills, transferable skills, generic skills or higher order skills and so on. What to call these skills remains hotly debated. It many cases, emphasis has been placed in different areas or different understandings of certain skills or characteristics exist, particularly across countries of the diverse Asia-Pacific region.

“Because of this complexity, our research will first focus on mapping how countries of the region define these skills and integrate them into their education policies and curriculum, while being fully aware of the technical problems with the term ‘non-cognitive’ itself, ” Ms Yano said.

“We also hope to take this one step further, identifying the ways transversal/non-cognitive skills are being integrated in selected areas of education policy and practice including learning/teaching materials, teacher training, pedagogy and assessment,” she said.

While the ERI-Net Seminar provided a platform to develop this research framework, participants of the meeting are now challenged to undertake this study in their home countries, with the findings expected by October 2014.

For more information on ERI-Net, the research framework, or to get involved in the study, contact Satoko Yano [s.yano[at]] or Rachel McCarthy [r.mccarthy(at)] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.

Written by Rachel McCarthy [r.mccarthy(at)]

Related link:

•  ERI-Net
•  ERI-Net Seminar 2013: Presentations