13.06.2013 - UNESCO Office in Santiago

Newsletter LLECE: Education and socio–emotional skills: Much progress, many questions. By Marina Bassi, Economics Education Senior Specialist, Inter–American Development Bank (IADB)

All individuals possess a set of skills and talents that makes them unique and that has an impact on the achievements they reach throughout their lives. Cognitive, non–cognitive and socio–emotional skills have proven to be determinant for the results that different persons obtain in their educational and working careers. This conclusion is key to assess the relevance of the present education system, as it prepares youth to enter the labor market and modern society. Do schools provide the proper tools?

The Education Division of the IADB has been studying this issue in Latin America, extensively reviewing developed countries’ literature, and implementing original surveys in order to collect information on what skills are required in the labor market, and what skills are associated to successful labor and education careers in the region. The results of that research were published in the book entitled Desconectados: Habilidades, educación y empleo en América Latina (Disconnected: Skills, Education, and Employment in Latin America), and suggest the existence of a significant gap between skills that are taught in Latin America’s education systems and skills that are necessary to perform in today’s world. However, before documenting the evidence for the region, basic questions emerged. We are trying to comprehend the situation using the literature that is available and that, as we have learned, is growing rapidly: How are cognitive and “soft” or socio–emotional skills defined and identified? Are both sets of skills related? What are the most relevant skills? Which skills better predict social and economic results in people’s lives? How and when are they developed? How feasible is it to modify those skills through external interventions? These are some of the questions that may be asked.

For years, the economic literature has documented the link between educational results and advantages in terms of income and other labor outcomes. The relationship between intelligence or cognitive ability and problem solving or information processing is natural and intuitive. Intelligence is the capacity to understand complex ideas, to learn from experience, to adapt, and to transform the environment that surrounds us. Psychology addresses two components of intelligence, which help to understand its degree of pliancy. One of those components, fluid intelligence, is closer to genetic potential, is less malleable due to external interventions, and is developed during the first years of a person’s life. The second component, crystallized intelligence, is manifested in learning, is more influenced by experience and by interaction with culture and the setting. The literature that points out that cognitive skills can be successfully influenced almost exclusively during early childhood, refer to the first component, usually expressed in the IQ, which is the result of specific intelligence tests, and that has been proven to stabilize after the age of 5 or 6. On the other hand, learning and knowledge undoubtedly develop throughout life under the influence of not only “hard” intelligence, but also of other “soft” characteristics linked to personality traits.

Research on the role of socio–emotional skills has begun, at least recently, among economists. The traits of an individual’s personality are countless and diverse. Some researchers avoid the term “non–cognitive” when they refer to these skills, because they are not completely isolated from the cognition process.

Many aspects of personality traits are affected by cognition. At the same time, cognition depends to a certain extent on personality. Measures to avoid risk, for example, may be affected by intelligence or knowledge. Self–esteem or motivation may be fuelled by cognitive results. Meanwhile, intelligence test results are sensitive to a person’s motivation, interest, and anxiety. Life–long learning and development of cognitive skills are influenced by personality traits such as curiosity, ambition, and perseverance.

The lack of a single taxonomy that would encompass the main personality traits is added to the difficulties to separate cognitive and socio–emotional skills in practice. The scale of the Big Five personality traits (adaptability or openness to new experiences; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness; and neuroticism or emotional stability) has been the most utilized, and many tools have been developed to evaluate these traits. But, What are the most relevant socio–emotional skills? Are they associated to better social and economic results? This is still being discussed and researched.

Skills assessed for the study published in Desconectados included one cognitive skill (general intellectual skill, related to fluid intelligence) and three socio–emotional skills (self–efficacy or the capacity to achieve set goals, metacognitive strategies or planning of cognitive tasks, and social skills or leadership and adaptability). With the support of the Centro MIDE UC, special tools were developed and these skills were assessed in a group of almost 6,000 young adults (between ages 25 and 30) in Argentina and Chile. Among the main results was that the skill mostly related to salary range and the possibility of being employed was one of the socio–emotional ones: self–efficacy. Individuals with higher levels of confidence in their skills had higher salaries and better employment rates both in Argentina and in Chile. Undoubtedly, the reason is two–fold: better job results also improve self–esteem. However, the link between these variables was notably higher than the one found, for example, between intellectual skills or “hard” intelligence and achievements in the labor market.

On the other hand, when analyzing educational results such as completed educational level, cognitive skills showed a considerably higher correlation than any of the socio–emotional skills that were assessed in the study. In this case, intelligence seemed to weigh more than the capacity to organize and carry out cognitive tasks, social skills, or self–efficacy. Nonetheless, persons with higher levels of education also showed a certain increase in the three socio–emotional skills.

The research also included surveys of 1,200 employers from five specific industries (automotive, retail, banking, hotel, and food processing) in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The objective was to learn about demand for the different types of skills. In this case, those who were interviewed had to grade three sets of skills on a scale of 1 to 100, according to the level of importance they

assigned to these skills for the fulfillment of their employees’ duties: technical or sector–specific skills; socio–emotional or behavioral skills; and cognitive or knowledge skills. The results were overwhelming: in the three countries, and in the five industries, behavioral skills were graded significantly higher. In aggregate terms, behavioral skills were assigned 55 points, knowledge skills received 35 points, and sector–specific skills obtained 15 points. Moreover, employers were asked which skills were harder to find among workers who had just graduated from secondary school in Latin America. Again, there was consensus: socio–emotional or behavioral skills were the most scarce among Latin American youths. Close to 90% of business owners reported having difficulties finding the skills that their companies need, and most of them asserted that the biggest shortcoming is related to personality and behavior.

What do these results tell us about the relevance of education in the region, and about the role of schools in the development of skills that go beyond cognitive ones? Much remains to be done. We know that socio–emotional skills are more pliable for a longer period of time in the cycle of life than cognitive skills (up to early adulthood). Clearly, family plays a fundamental role. However, schools could have a much more active role if their field of action was extended to include socio–emotional skills, in order to compensate for disadvantages that originate in adverse settings or family contexts. The earlier these support actions happen in a child’s life, the better the chances of success will be. This does not mean that efforts should be diminished in the teaching of cognitive skills, which is without a doubt the central role of schools. More has to be done in different ways.

The required change is significant, and there are many challenges. How should we assess these challenges at the school level or in the education system? What skills should be given priority? What are the most effective actions to develop those skills? While researchers continue making progress on this issue, let us hope that schools and the main stakeholders will recognize the significance of socio–emotional skills, and will make the development of those skills one of their main goals. This would represent great progress towards an education that is closer to today’s needs and demands.

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