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The Understated Importance of Non-cognitive Skills

In shaping the future of education in the Asia-Pacific, we must pay close attention to the development of “non-cognitive skills”, agreed panelists during the high-level expert meeting, “Towards EFA 2015 and Beyond – Shaping a New Vision of Education,” Bangkok, 9-11 May 2012.

Panelists of the Regional High-Level Expert Meeting agree: non-cognitive skills a must in future education development

Indeed, more than a decade into the 21st century, it is increasingly acknowledged that a purely economic model of development is not sufficient to respond to the problems facing the world. In the lead-up to 2015 and beyond, it is important to increase our exploration of how education systems should go about promoting learning for the acquisition of so-called “non-cognitive skills1” needed to confront contemporary challenges and to be responsible and engaged members of society. 

Some national systems of education are increasingly working to find ways to accommodate the socio-cultural sphere, including the teaching of indigenous and other minority groups’ histories in culturally sensitive ways, the teaching of ethics and values and bilingual or mother tongue education.  The latter is particularly significant given that teaching students in their mother tongue has been shown to not only improve their academic results, but also to provide communication skills, critical mind sets and opportunities to learn through aspects of one’s own culture. Given the linguistic diversity of the region (2500 languages are found in the Asia-Pacific region and Papua New Guinea alone has more than 850 languages (UNESCO 2007)), this is a particularly pertinent consideration.

A related consideration concerns the purpose of education. Beyond its cognitive dimensions aimed at producing high performing students for the labour market, there is increasing recognition of the role of education in teaching people to live together. This more comprehensive conception of education acknowledges its centrality in promoting peace, citizenship and sustainable development and responding to crucial challenges such as ethnic and religious conflict, youth unemployment, social unrest and HIV and AIDS. 

Panelists on Discussion Three: Socio-cultural Trends in the Asia-Pacific Region and Implications for Education highlighted the great importance that should be placed on socio-cultural trends and challenges and the development of non-cognitive skills in improving education in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly as we look beyond 2015. The panel discussion, held on the second day of the regional high-level expert meeting, involved experts from Bhutan, Fiji and the Republic of Korea. 

Lopen Lungtean Gyatso, Director of the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies, Royal University of Bhutan, presented a Bhutanese perspective of the cultural value of education, highlighting the way in which curriculum, driven by market forces and economic values, may come at the cost of lessened ‘indigenous thought.’ At the same time, Lopen Gyatso revisited Bhutan’s well known policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), explaining that “education systems should enable students to truly understand values and encourage wholesome and positive emotions,” underscoring the significance of culture and history in informing who we are as individuals, a concept that should be better embraced through education. 

The Bhutanese education system, in an effort to do this, incorporates the nine domains of GNH: psychological wellbeing, physical health, community vitality, work‐life balance, living standards, civic engagement in governance, education, cultural diversity and ecological integrity. Once these aspects are balanced, Lopen Gyatso explained, the chance of receiving happiness in life increases. Happiness has therefore replaced economic forces, to be at the heart of the Bhutanese education agenda.

As part of the panel, Konai Thaman, UNESCO Chair in Indigenous Education and Professor at the University of the South-Pacific, shared her perspectives on socio-cultural contexts in the South-Pacific. She pointed out that in the South-Pacific, the common word for ‘culture’ is synonymous with ‘life’ and is thus all embracing of social, cultural, economic, political domains. The Pacific region is defined by its immense cultural diversity. At the same time, many are migrating for both business and education, while the Pacific region has continued to ‘underperform’ in education, when compared to the broader Asia-Pacific region. The quality of education continues to present as a perennial concern, with limited return for money spent on education. In many ways, it can be argued that the continued challenges to improving education in the Pacific region are largely the result of a system not culturally sensitive to the needs of its pupils. 

For Konai Thaman, pupils are commonly expected to learn in a foreign language and adapt to foreign values while in the school room. It may be that the idea of uniforms and registration are alien to those starting in schools, that the knowledge obtained and lessons learnt, indeed the curriculum itself, may not be of relevance to local communities. For many, it may be that what is taught in school does not reflect the world outside school. Children are thus at risk of becoming disconnected from their cultural heritage; they might not even know their ‘mother tongue’. 

In this environment, it may come as no surprise that children leave school prematurely. In the South-Pacific, unemployment is high and particularly for youth, while drug use and suicide rates are cause for concern. In the effort to reform education in the Pacific region, the great importance of socio-cultural factors could be an important part of the solution.

The third panelist, Seunghwan Lee, Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding, Republic of Korea, presented ‘Revisiting the Aim of Education and the Mainstreaming of Education for International Understanding.’ For Dr Lee, we have entered a new age of ‘discontent’ in education. Not only do we see great hikes in tuition fees in many parts of the world and persistently high levels of youth unemployment, in other parts of the world, we see continuing problems of illiteracy and a lack of easy access to schools. 

For Dr Lee, if global military spending, which continues to increase at an unimaginable pace, was instead directed towards eradicating illiteracy, we would go a long way to resolving many of the world’s greatest problems. Altering our perception of education as fundamental to international understanding, could also help bring about critical changes that we need. 

To this end, underpinning education for international understanding are three core values, according to Dr Lee, which should be at the forefront of future education agendas:

    1) Respect of diversity
    2) Respect of Universal Values - Human rights, Peace, Environment
    3) Non-violent ways of conflict resolution

This does perhaps bring us back to the very purpose of education. Beyond the cognitive dimensions aimed at producing high performing students for the labour market, there is indeed increasing recognition for the role of education in teaching people to live together. 

In shaping the future of education in the Asia-Pacific, we must indeed pay close attention socio-cultural trend and more specifically, the development of non-cognitive skills, an important core message from the high-level expert meeting, “Towards EFA 2015 and Beyond – Shaping a new Vision of Education.” 

 1  Non-cognitive areas include “soft skills” not always measured in educational assessments.  such as interpersonal skills, creativity, one’s skills in verbal and non-verbal communication, empathy and emotional maturity. 

Written by Rachel McCarthy and Apricot Wilson, Education Policy and Reform Unit, UNESCO Bangkok