Non-cognitive skills: What are they and why should we care?


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 Trinn Suwannapha / World Bank)
With trends such as automation causing fundamental shifts in the labor market, research is increasingly looking at the value of non-cognitive skills or socioemotional skills. (Photo: Trinn Suwannapha / World Bank)

Over the past few decades, cheap and low-skilled labor has provided many countries — including much of East Asia — with a competitive advantage.  However, with economies increasingly turning to automation, cheap labor and low skills will no longer guarantee economic growth or even jobs. 

The good news is that what is being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will also create jobs as highly skilled workers will be needed to work alongside the new technology.  At a recent, World Bank-organized global education conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, policymakers, researchers and representatives from organizations dug deeper into the issues raised by these trends.

Research at the international, national and school level is increasingly looking at the value of non-cognitive skills (also often referred to as socioemotional skills) and at how education systems impact their development. Demand for these skills will continue to change as economies and labor market needs evolve, with trends such as automation causing fundamental shifts.

For many countries, a big question for the future will be how their education systems can move to more effectively support and better address the development of non-cognitive skills in order to equip students with a flexible set of skills that will allow them to thrive and continually adapt in the 4IR.

Non-cognitive skills and why they matter for economic development
The terminology is often varied, but the focus of this discussion was on the group of traits over multiple domains that contain behaviors and attitudes. Non-cognitive skills cover a range of abilities such as conscientiousness, perseverance, and teamwork. These skills are critically important to student achievement, both in and beyond the classroom. They form a critical piece of workers’ skill sets, which comprise cognitive, non-cognitive and job-specific skills.

Research is showing that there are concrete benefits to non-cognitive skills, both in education and labor market outcomes. The Bank’s STEP survey work, for example, has found concrete payoff for skills such as “grit” (a combination of passion and perseverance), conscientiousness and decision-making in the labor market, with even more importance to women and the poorest. These skills are also becoming more important as trends like automation shift the skills needed to compete in today’s fast evolving labor markets.

What countries are doing to build skills
For Singapore, the top performer in PISA 2015 (an international study conducted every three years which aims to assess education systems globally by testing 15-year-old students’ abilities science, math, and reading), recent trends such as stratification and a singular focus on examination scores led both policymakers and society to reexamine the nature of education.

During the conference, Singapore shared how they have recently introduced a more comprehensive model of education— schools are looking beyond cognitive skills testing and are incorporating character and citizenship education, with a holistic focus on children’s well-being and “development of the whole person.”

One model, called Positive Education, entails creating a culture that is supportive, caring and trusting. At the heart of this approach is a “double helix” view of success that links well being with a focus on academic excellence. 

While the benefits to individuals and society of including non-cognitive skills are increasingly clear, a range of literature finds that some of the most cost effective interventions for building these skills begin at the earliest point in the lifecycle. However, systems can also target effective interventions at later life stages. The important takeaway is that what comes first lays the groundwork for what skills, and to what extent these skills, can be developed later in life.

Across the globe from Singapore, Mexico is transforming its secondary education to take advantage of an important window in adolescent development to raise socioemotional skills. At the conference, Mexico’s Ministry of Education shared how Mexico has implemented Construye-T program for students in in grades 10-12th, which provides and trains teachers to implement a set of activities in the classroom in order to develop students’ socioemotional skills.  Not only has Mexico found the program to have a positive impact on education outcomes, and to be implementable at a low cost, they have also found that employers see many of these skills—such as team work, responsibility, and punctuality  as absolutely critical for productivity. 

What are the Challenges?
The host country of the conference, Indonesia recently implemented an education model focused on non-cognitive skills called ‘character education’ as part of broader education reforms. 

A critical challenge highlighted by Indonesia is determining how to best deliver this type of education in the classroom.  A key takeaway from the discussion is that approaches have to be integrated into the curriculum, not viewed as being separate from it. For education systems, “it’s not a tradeoff between cognitive and non-cognitive skills, they are mutually reinforcing.”

Measuring non-cognitive skills
Another challenge countries are facing is how to measure development of non-cognitive skills. Tools such as the STEPS survey provide a start, but we do not yet have great instruments to measure the presences of these behavioral and attitudinal skills.

Doing so requires finding a way to measure process, rather than outcome – an inherently complex task. Such tools are crucial to help governments pay attention to this relatively new area so that skills development policy can continue to evolve alongside rapidly changing market demands.  International assessments such as PISA are increasingly looking at non-cognitive outcomes, as shown by forthcoming reports on collaborative problem solving, motivation and well-being.

Where do we go from here?
This conversation was only the beginning. We at the World Bank are continuing this dialogue in the region, in particular on the theme of building skills for the future: looking at the future of jobs, and what this means for human resource development and job creation. This topic will form a key theme at an upcoming forum organized by the World Bank and the Korean government. 

The forum, to be held in Seoul, Korea in November 2017 will bring together policymakers, researchers and the private sector, with the aim of delving into these important questions: What does the future of jobs look like? How can governments partner with the private sector to best prepare for this transformation in terms of human resource development and job creation? If you have any thoughts on these issues, please share them in the comments section below.
Find out more about World Bank Group Education on our website and on Twitter. See all our resources on skills development.


Raja Bentaouet Kattan

Advisor to the Education Global Practice

Gaurav D. Joshi
May 09, 2017

Thanks a lot for highlighting this critical aspect of learning - which liberates education from a simply a means for earning a wage. It is also just as important to recognize these non-cognitive skills, for their importance in development of individuals as contributors not only as economic factors of production, but making society and life richer, more textured, less monotonous. And, in our development business, these should be seen as a key set of skills in disarming our worthy adversaries - skepticism, boredom - to name a few.
Perhaps, it would help a lot if we were to recognize that society(/ies) are more than markets and people more than just factors of production.

May 13, 2017

The discussion on how to produce socioemotional skills at the educational institutions in crucial for Africa as well. There are two reasons. First, the number of intakes in TVET institutions in Africa has certainly increased, and more students from disadvantaged family have access to education and training. This brings heterogeneity in the classroom, and the need for differentiated pedagogy. However, the Occupational Standard across many African countries emphasizes the acquisition of technical skills, while very few attention is given to the socioemotional skills. There is therefore a need for expanding the quality of education and teachers. Research can help by investigating how students from disadvantaged family can improve more of their socioemotional skills at school.

Pratibha Joshi
May 22, 2017

This is a very relevant and important conversation. While policy makers and researchers determine ways to impart and measure non-cognitive skills, let's remain alert about not getting ahead of our tools and evaluating program/teacher performance based on what gets measured for these skills.…

P Short
May 23, 2017

This is a really valuable discussion to be having. Here in New Zealand we emphasise a student-centric approach to learning from early childhood through to upper secondary that aims to combine academic excellence with the socioemotional skills. We have diverse programmes wrapped under an umbrella called 'Wellbeing' which support young people in a holistic way to learn about how to be honest, tolerant members of society, how to communicate well and and be confident in any social or work situation. NZ is an increasingly multicultural country with all the world's nationalities and faiths represented. It's vital to our social and economic development as a peaceful society that all our young people are taught these skills to be employable and controbuting members of our communities.

Charles Y. Aheto-Tsegah
July 09, 2017

What I find interesting about this piece is that it goes to the heart of what makes quality education. In many countries including mine, Ghana, quality education is when so many learners have passed an examination that is used to place them at the next level. I see it as education for a continuum, focussing on cognitive skills but departs from providing socioemotional skills. This piece, thus, turns attention towards a consideration for a new definition of quality education. Besides it sets the pace by raising some of what could be the indicators for measuring the very critical part of education, non-cognitive skills. I have noted that some of the questions we can raise in evaluating the education system include how mutually reinforcing the content of education is in achieving, 'Positive Education'; whether the content promotes team work, collaborative learning and an adaptive mentality that is able to respond to the potential complex setting after schooling. The emphasis on cognitive skills undermines and clouds the benefits of non-cognitive skills, making schooling unattractive. Thanks for bringing this up.

Harsh Bhargava
January 27, 2019

Competitiveness Mindset Institute (CMI) in the USA and IIT (the most prestigious educational institute name in India) did a massive nationwide survey that found that for the country to be competitive in global market, five key non-cognitive skills are critical. They include Conscientiousness, Perseverance that your research has also identified. Also, training in these skills require completely different pedagogy than delivering hard skills. CMI has developed this pedagogy and has successfully delivered this program to a fair number of students and is now rolling the program to a very large number of edu. institutes.