13.06.2013 - UNESCO Office in Santiago

Newsletter LLECE: The significance of non–cognitive skills in post–2015 education

By Jorge Sequeira, director, Regional Bureau of Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago)

As the global Education for All (EFA) movement reaches the end of its cycle in 2015, countries will have to report on their achievements and on the pending challenges regarding the six targets that sustain this initiative.

In recent years, the region of Latin America and the Caribbean has made internationally recognized progress with respect to the six EFA targets; namely, in coverage and access to education at all levels of the school system.

Nonetheless, we must highlight target 6, which addresses education quality, and is chronically lagging in the region. This is the main issue of research for UNESCO’s Latin American Laboratory for the Assessment of Quality in Education (LLECE). Target 6 represents a key challenge for 2015 and beyond.

The international education community is currently developing efforts to design the post–2015 education agenda. This exercise encourages a reflection on the future of education, involving governments, students, teachers, communities, and many other stakeholders. One aspect that should be reviewed is the approach that traditionally has been applied to assess education quality. Emphasis has been made on curricular areas such as Language, Math, and Science, subjects that tend to favor the acquisition of cognitive skills.

This approach is represented in international tests like TIMSS, PISA, and TERCE. Usually, assessment goes hand in hand with educational practice; that is, if cognitive skills are being evaluated, teaching naturally tends to focus on the acquisition of those same skills.

There are some evaluations that measure non–cognitive skills, like the International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) 2010, or the Chilean study on physical education 2012, but these are not frequent and do not have the profile of better known studies.

One issue that is gaining momentum in the context of the post–2015 education debate is the significance of non–cognitive education. This area is still not clearly defined, and is known in general terms as skills of the 21st Century or “soft skills”. To expand on this issue, we may mention –among others– the text written by U.S. expert Henry Levin.

A similar example is “Education for Global Citizenship”, one of the three pillars of the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative: being a “global citizen” goes beyond the cognitive aspect, because it involves concepts like awareness about environmental importance and protection, conflict resolution, and understanding and being committed to human rights, among others.

This discussion is not new; it had already begun with UNESCO's Delors Report , which mentions, as pillars of education, learning not only to “know”, but also to “be” and to “live together”, and this requires non–cognitive skills. However, while today we know how to assess cognitive skills through psychometric techniques, there is little knowledge or proven practice on the measurement of “living together” or other non–cognitive skills. It is unlikely that education quality can be reformed and improved if education assessment is not enriched with these contributions.

Education assessment may play a leading role for improving quality in the post–2015 education agenda, if it incorporates items to evaluate non­–cognitive skills in future international tests like the ones conducted by the LLECE.

UNESCO presents this challenge to the education assessment community: the evaluation of non–cognitive skills on a large scale. This is a task that deserves some thought, in order to develop a more relevant education, that is adapted to the realities of our societies, and that provides a better future for our region’s youth.

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