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October 26, 2017

Hard measures for soft skills

Dr Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, outlines the ‘21st century skills’ or general capabilities, why they matter and whether they can be measured.

Matthew Deeble, SVA’s Education Practise Lead, talks with Dr. Schleicher who was in Australia as a special guest for SVA’s sixth education dialogue, an annual convening of thought leaders, policy makers, and practitioners, about improvements to Australia’s education system.

Matthew Deeble (MD): One of the reasons that you’re here in Australia is to talk to us about the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2030 agenda, which relates to building competencies or what we in Australia call the general capabilities. Could you define what you mean by these competencies and why they matter in education?

Andreas Schleicher puts the case for developing social and emotional skills in our education system

Dr Andreas Schleicher (AS): Digitalisation has radically altered the nature of work and life for people. The things that are easy to teach, easy to test, have also become easy to digitise, to automate, to outsource. What we’re trying to do at the OECD is think more carefully about how we can pair the artificial intelligence of computers with the human qualities where people can create more value. Think complex problem solving, creative thinking, but also social aspects, working with people who are different from you, working with people who think differently from you. Emotional qualities: courage, resilience, curiosity, leadership. We’re trying to define those kinds of elements that are very instrumental for our success and working in life. But also then to build metrics around it. How can we observe those qualities, and last but not least, how can we improve them.

Can and should soft skills be taught?

MD: There’s a very common concern when people think about those characteristics that you’ve described in terms of cultural understanding, or empathy and resilience. The question is whether they can be taught. And if they could be taught, could that be measured? How do you respond to that concern?

AS: What we know is that they can be learned. Some things are better caught than taught in education. It’s often the enabling environment. You go into a Japanese school, the first thing is you take your shoes off. That’s part of the disciplines. At the end of the school day, students will clean the classroom together with their teachers. That’s part of the paradigm that creates joint ownership, discipline. Teaching is not just about delivery of instruction, it’s about the learning environment and the organisation of learning.

Brain research shows that between the age of one and three, there are important windows for the development of character qualities.

But that being said, we have good evidence that the broader social and emotional skills can be developed in any educational setting, sometimes very early in the lives of children. Brain research shows that between the age of one and three, there are important windows for the development of character qualities. If we are better aware of this and create innovative learning environments, I’m quite confident that we can do a lot to educate children.

MD: Many people would say that these other skills might be useful, but literacy and numeracy are the foundation of education and what should be delivered in schools. What do you say to that?

AS: Success is about multiple dimensions. It’s very dangerous if we think that one has to come before the other – we have to first become literate before we can develop character qualities. In fact, research shows that some of the important social and emotional skills are developed just in the very early years. I think we have to look at outcomes in a multidimensional way from the very start. You can teach creativity in your mathematics lesson. You can teach many of those kinds of dimensions as an integral part of this.

They are not doing worse on numeracy because they’re doing better on character qualities.

We have to remain true to the disciplines, I think that’s important. But at the same time also strengthen interdisciplinary thinking and working among students. High performing education systems have really got to that point. They are not doing worse on numeracy because they’re doing better on character qualities. In the same away, the absence of numeracy skills doesn’t imply the presence of those kind of social and emotional skills.

How can soft skills be measured?

MD: What about the measurement side? How do we measure whether these attributes, skills and dispositions are growing in a young person?

AS: We have also there to take a wider approach to measurement. Measurement should not just be tests. It could be observation, it could be a more qualitative metrics to build around. When I started with PISA, it was my dream to build an assessment of collaborative problem-solving skills.[1] [Listen to Dr Schleicher talk about PISA.] We had no idea how you could do that. Then suddenly in 2009, 2010, digital technologies enabled us to network students to actually see how they could work together. It’s become possible.

… today technology enables us to do a lot, to assess the 21st century capacities.

I do think we should not give up with the status quo, an assessment of what we could always easily observe, like literacy and numeracy test. But, today technology enables us to do a lot, to assess the 21st century capacities. We’ve also moved into a space where we can combine the world of formative assessment, assessment for improvement, and summative assessment, that looks at the results at the end of the day. Those were two separate worlds that I believe divided educators. Now we can actually integrate them. I think the modern technology-enabled world of assessment has become really challenging.

MD:  It must be very challenging when you think about more of those qualitative measures or teacher observation to find ways of norming that information across countries. Is that some of the work that you do as you think about these new measures for the competencies?

AS: Yes, absolutely. But I do think we also have to get more used to dealing with uncertainty in measurement. We often sacrifice validity gains for reliability gains in assessment. We build boring multiple choice tests just because they give us a very precise, very narrow measure. We have to accept that some other metrics may have a greater range of uncertainty, and build the right balance between validity – measuring the kind of things that are really important, and reliability – measuring things in a way that is predictable and relevant as well.

MD: Do the new technologies make that opportunity much more in reach for people?

AS: Absolutely. I also think the other part of this is to build greater data literacy. How can we interpret multiple metrics, and also look at multidimensional metrics. It may not be possible to summarise all that we know about a person in a single score, but there may be different dimensions. People might have different strengths on different dimensions, and I think we have to develop more sophisticated ways to measure outcomes. Because those outcomes have a very important influence on how students learn, teachers teach, parents look at results, and we judge the performance of schools.

MD:  In the most recent PISA, you tested for collaboration skills. Do you have some of these other capabilities in mind for testing in future PISA tests?

AS: Yes, in the next round we are going to assess global competency – the capacity of students to look at the world through different lenses and perspectives, appreciate different ways of thinking, different cultures. Openness and tolerance are very important dimensions of this. But simply also to cope and live in a complex world that is multidimensional, that has multiple perspectives.

Today’s success is about having this kind of compass and navigation skills to find your own way in an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world.

In the past success was about teaching someone something. Today’s success is about having this kind of compass and navigation skills to find your own way in an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world; that’s really what global competency is about. In 2021, we are trying to develop an assessment of creative thinking skills. Again, creating new value is one of the most central dimensions for individual success in innovation.

Soft skills for disadvantaged environments

MD: SVA is particularly interested in improving the lives of people in need or working with disadvantaged cohorts. Does the improvement of capabilities matter more for people from a low SES background? Does improving those capacities make a bigger difference for those sorts of students?

AS:  You can make that argument for almost any student. If you come from a wealthy background, you’re going to have many chances in life and many open doors, even if you don’t get such a great initial education. If you come from a disadvantaged background, you have really only one card to play, and that is a good schooling. You miss that boat, and you’re not going to get a second chance in life, normally.

Ensuring that we attract the most talented teachers in the most challenging classrooms, and get the best leaders into the toughest school environments, is really one attribute of successful education systems. Think about it. You can look at the 10% of the most disadvantaged students in a country like Vietnam or in Singapore, and they do pretty much as well as the almost average student in Australia. There’s a lot more that can be done to give the children in greatest needs the best possible education.

Workplaces of the future

MD: At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got employers in Australia who are now thinking about the workforce that they’re wanting to hire in for the future. This work that you’re focusing on with the 2030 agenda, what message would you give to employers about the importance of this work and how that can make a difference for them with the employees of the future?

AS: Employers are an important part of this work. They help us to actually look outwards to what’s the extent to which different types of competencies are actually used at the workplace or productive use. In the end, the productivity of companies largely depends on the skills of their workforce. But more importantly, it’s not just the productivity of your workers, the skills of your workers, it’s the skills of your customers.

The distribution of skills in our societies has enormous implications on economic and social dimensions. We often forget that poor skills are not only an issue of low earnings and poor employment. They’re also an issue of lower trust in our society, lower social participation, political fragmentation, all of those things. In a society which has increasing demands on the skills of people, being slow to adapt really puts you at a great disadvantage.

Inequality in skills is one of the biggest drivers of social inequality.

MD: The opportunities are large and then the risks are also larger for a failure to act or respond to this changing agenda.

AS: Yes. It’s very interesting to look at the last years. Never before have those with great skills had better life chances than they have today. But never before have people at the low end of the skill distribution paid the kind of economic and social price they pay for this. In the past, you could deal with inequalities in our societies through redistribution, using taxes to take money from the rich, give it to the poor. But that’s dealing with the consequence of inequality. As you know, the pace of change accelerates, it works less and less well. The only way to address those issues really is to look at the sources of inequality. Inequality in skills is one of the biggest drivers of social inequality.

Digitalisation is basically replacing routine cognitive skills and routine manual skills. But at the same time, it increases the value of non-routine analytic skills, creative skills.

MD: They’re tightly bound, aren’t they? The new work force can only work on high performing, high functioning skills. Largely, workforces that were in manual or  quite simple procedural routine tasks have disappeared because they’re being taken over by machines and by artificial intelligence.

AS: Precisely. Digitalisation is basically replacing routine cognitive skills and routine manual skills. But at the same time, it increases the value of non-routine analytic skills, creative skills. It also increases the value of social skills. It’s a very interesting phenomenon as well. Perspective taking and empathy at every level of the system are dimensions that add really important value to what computers can do.

Impact on society

MD: You’ve described the importance of these characteristics or dispositions – empathy, resilience – as important skills for the workplace. But it’s also true for social cohesion, isn’t it? That those very skills are what we would need to help deal with a fast changing society and with diversities of population and of need.

AS: Yes, absolutely. The capacity of individuals to understand diversity, to embrace diversity, and to create value out of this. I think diversity is not the problem of the knowledge economy, but the source of its wealth really. That’s how successful societies have thrived over decades. Europe is a place where the richness of different cultures and ideas merged. Australia is an example of that. This is how we created successful societies. Digitalisation can empower that, it can also make that more difficult. The echo chambers that digitalisation is creating to put you together as people who think and work like you, it’s a counterpart. But I think it just highlights the need for global competency, and the capacity to really make good use out of this.

… you won’t improve what you do not measure.

MD:  It’s such an important topic for the OECD and the Directorate for Education and Skills; what are you doing to advance this agenda over the next decade or so?

AS: First of all, bringing countries and cultures together to think about this collectively. We’ve advanced quite rapidly on this. I would have never imagined our work on Education 2030 would have advanced as quickly as it has. When we started with this, you had many countries including Australia would see education largely as a field of domestic policy. Now they’re working together to frame good practise, to find how we can anticipate the evolution of skill demand in our societies and labour markets. That’s really our work. The next step is then to build and improve our metrics, to look at and measure success, because you won’t improve what you do not measure. When we do not have eyes and ears to see progress on those dimensions, it’s unlikely that teachers are going to pay attention to this, that schools pay attention to this. That’s going to be the next step.

Video of Dr Schleicher’s keynote from the education dialogue.

Social Ventures Australia is committed to an equitable education system, and to effecting systems change. The education dialogue convenes leaders and stakeholders from around Australia to build momentum to support the change needed.

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[1] PISA: The Programme for International Student Achievement 

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