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With PISA, the OECD has a long history of tracking academic schooling outcomes. But these are just part of the story of what makes individuals, businesses and nations successful. Employers these days look for people who are not just very good in their field of study, but who are also open-minded, curious and creative; who have a strong sense of self-awareness and responsibility; who can effectively and empathically work with others and who can navigate ambiguity and uncertainty.
For the first time, the OECD has now been able to compare such skills among 10- and 15-year-olds. Some of the results are troubling. If we were to see 15-year-olds doing less well in reading or mathematics than 10-year-olds, we would ask ourselves what’s wrong with our approach to schooling. And that’s exactly what the results show for creativity and curiosity: 15-year-olds reported lower levels of creativity and curiosity than 10-year-olds, even if that dip varied widely across jurisdictions. Psychologists have various explanations for this; for example, 15-year-olds could be more self-aware and look at themselves more objectively, and often go through a difficult phase of adjustment to adulthood. But that’s only part of the story, because parents and teachers confirmed the decline in students creativity and curiosity. We are all born with an abundance of curiosity; if you have a three-year-old son or daughter, they will question everything you say, experiment with anything that gets into their way and are always ready to learn, unlearn and relearn. Could it be that our way of schooling gets in the way of nurturing creative children, by expecting them to reproduce the established wisdom of our times rather than questioning it?
Another interesting finding is that boys and girls come out quite differently on this assessment. 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, co-operation and tolerance. By contrast, boys exhibited higher emotional regulation skills like stress resistance, optimism and emotional control as well as important social skills like assertiveness and energy. In every city participating in the survey, students from advantaged backgrounds reported higher social and emotional skills than their disadvantaged peers in every skill that was measured. Parents from more advantaged backgrounds could be making greater investments in their children’s social and emotional skills; equally, students with a less favourable life might have had more challenges, fewer opportunities and less support to develop these skills.
Social and emotional skills are not just important in their own right. The results from the survey show that they are also important predictors of school grades across age cohorts, academic subjects and cities. In particular, being intellectually curious and persistent are the social and emotional skills most strongly related to school grades for both 10- and 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and the arts. These findings emphasise the importance of not only dedication in pursuing predetermined goals, even in the face of difficulties, but also cultivating an intellectual curiosity for a diverse range of topics. External forces like parents’ or teachers’ expectations can drive persistence, but they can disappear or change over time—intellectual curiosity is a powerful intrinsic motivator. Those students who are curious about a diverse set of topics and love learning new things are better equipped to face difficulties and are more likely to reach their goals.
More on the Forum Network: OECD Forum Virtual Event – The School-to-Work Transition by Jae Kyung Lee, Forum Engagement Group Officer, OECD
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 a higher level of 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 at school also matters. The quality of the relationship between students and teachers was one of the strongest predictors of social and emotional skills. Moreover, 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, but also to a higher level of test anxiety. Some level of test anxiety is normal and can be helpful to stay focused. But 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. When competitive learning environments and high expectations from 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.
All this underlines why it is important for education systems to strive for a holistic development of their students, going beyond academic skills alone. They must recognise that attuned social and emotional skills, improved well-being and fulfilling social relations at school can be the difference between a student with good grades and a flourishing of a citizen of the future.