With PISA, the OECD has a long history of establishing global metrics for academic schooling outcomes. However, these are just part of the story of what makes individuals, businesses, and countries successful. For the first time, the OECD has just published an international comparative assessment of social and emotional skills that complements the picture. We know that employers greatly value such skills, and many education and skills systems seek to prioritize their development. But it has always proved difficult to measure such skills in reasonably reliable and comparable ways, and what isn’t measured rarely gets improved. With this work, we are opening a new chapter on this.
The work is still embryonic, but it is a start and covers a range of outcomes which research shows are highly predictive for labor-market and social success, such as open-mindedness (including curiosity and creativity), task performance (including responsibility, self-control, and persistence), sociability and assertiveness, collaboration as well as stress resistance and emotional control.
The interconnected development of cognitive, social, and emotional skills starts during early infancy and continues throughout one’s lifespan. However, unlike academic learning, the development of social and emotional skills in students does not follow a steady upward trend. A striking, but not unexpected, result from the survey is that all 15-year-old students, irrespective of their gender and social background, reported lower social and emotional skills on average than their 10-year-old counterparts. Parents’ and educators’ ratings confirmed the dip in social and emotional skills as students grow older. Also, students’ creativity and curiosity were found to be lower among 15-year-olds than among 10-year-olds. While developmental factors may also play a role here, this might also partly derive from the fact that education systems often expect compliance from students, with the potential consequence of driving out curiosity and creativity as students grow older and stay longer in the education system.
It is noteworthy that age-related differences in creative self-concept are much more pronounced among girls than boys (in contrast, this is not true of intellectual curiosity, i.e. the emotional disposition towards learning). By age 15, girls, on average across and within jurisdictions, report significantly lower creativity than boys. Yet, parents’ and teachers’ ratings were similar across genders in both age groups. It is possible that this pattern is due to boys who are overconfident in their creative skills, whereas girls, on average, have more realistic evaluations. But if adolescents associate creative talent (“having a good imagination”, “finding solutions that others don’t see”) with men more than women, this will be reflected in gendered career choices where fewer girls will opt for educational tracks and, later, jobs where they expect creative talent to be required. Parents and teachers can help both boys and girls develop a realistic assessment of their strengths and counteract potentially intimidating stereotypes by highlighting role models for both genders and helping students see creativity as a learnable skill rather than a fixed trait.
Another important finding is that students’ social and emotional skills differ by social background and gender. In most jurisdictions, girls reported higher levels of skills related to task performance like responsibility and achievement motivation. They also reported higher levels of skills that are important in an interconnected world, like empathy, cooperation, and tolerance. In contrast, boys exhibited higher emotional regulation skills like stress resistance, optimism, emotional control as well as important social skills like assertiveness and energy. Students from advantaged backgrounds reported higher social and emotional skills than their disadvantaged peers in every skill measured and in all cities participating in the survey. Potentially, parents from more advantaged backgrounds could make greater investments in their children’s social and emotional skills. But also, students with a less favorable life might have had more challenges to overcome and fewer opportunities, and less support to develop these skills. Of course, these findings are at an aggregate level, and individual trajectories might well be different.
The survey also shows that students who think of themselves as highly creative also tend to report high levels of intellectual curiosity and persistence––two skills that are likely to play an important role in creative achievements, big and small. At the same time, students with a strong creative self-concept are a relatively diverse group of students in terms of self-control or emotional regulation skills, which have the strongest association with academic achievement and well-being, respectively. This means that while there are certain commonalities among students with a strong creative self-concept, the diversity of their needs and preferences should not be under-estimated. On the contrary, it may be beneficial to provide opportunities to practice and learn about one’s creative potential in a variety of formats, such as part of individual and group activities, in competitive and cooperative formats.
The survey did not just measure social and emotional skills but also important well-being outcomes. The results show that students’ social and emotional skills are closely related to students’ psychological well-being, even after accounting for social status and gender. This is particularly the case for stress resistance, optimism, and emotional control. Being optimistic is consistently related to both higher life satisfaction and current psychological well-being across cities. Stress resistance and being optimistic are strongly related to a lower level of test anxiety. Students who assessed themselves as being more stress-resistant, optimistic, and in control of their emotions reported higher levels of psychological well-being.
The learning environment and climate at school also matter. The results from the survey show that students’ perceptions of a competitive school climate and high expectations from parents or teachers are related to a higher level of psychological well-being for 10-year-olds and a higher level of test anxiety among 10- and 15-year-olds. Some level of test anxiety is normal and can be helpful to stay focused. However, too much anxiety can result in emotional and physical distress, and worrying that can impair test performance. Results from PISA have shown that it is not the frequency of tests but rather a perceived lack of teacher support that determines how anxious students feel. Test anxiety can also be related to lack of preparation, previous poor test performances and fear of failure. When competitive learning environments and high expectations by others are not accompanied by adequate social and emotional support or learned strategies to cope with test anxiety, students may feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared to face challenges. In preventing mental ill-health and promoting psychological well-being, schools have typically focused on teaching students effective study habits such as time management and work schemes, effective coping strategies, and techniques to relax. More regular and more adaptive testing can build students’ feeling of competence and sense of control. Furthermore, teacher support such as adapting lessons to the class’ needs and knowledge level, providing individual help for struggling students and showing confidence in students’ abilities might help reduce students’ test anxiety.
All this underlines why it is important for education systems to strive for a holistic development of their students. This includes more than the development of academic skills. It recognizes the importance of social and emotional skills and students’ well-being and social relations in the school environment. When students perceive that they are treated in a fair way, when the school and its staff help students develop a sense of belonging, when they provide for a disciplined, structured, and cooperative environment, when the environment is supportive and less punitive, students’ social and emotional skills develop better and they are less likely to engage in violent and negative interactions.