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Stories of innovation and scaling

How do we support the spread of “noncognitive” skills? Asia Society and the GCEN C21st Competencies working group 

The Asia Society was founded in 1956 in the United States, with the goal of promoting understanding between the U.S. and the countries of Asia, predominantly East Asia. In recent years, Asia Society has emerged as a leading international organisation supporting new thinking in education, working with partners on both sides of the Pacific to facilitate exchange of ideas between national and local education systems, and author their own thought leadership.

In 2013, Asia Society formalised some of this activity by founding the Global Cities Education Network (GCEN). GCEN is an international community of system leaders representing city-based education systems in China, Korea, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the United States (more recently, the community has been joined by its first Japanese city, Hiroshima). GCEN teams meet in an annual symposium, as well as in working group meetings.

The working groups focus on issues of priority concern to their cities, including professional learning and teacher development or vocational education and training. Over the years, it has become clear that there is at least one other major issue that cities in the network are grappling with: how to incorporate 21st century skills and competencies into their education systems. GCEN had already addressed this topic as the focus for a network meeting in Singapore in 2013, centring on a specially commissioned report prepared by RAND, Measuring 21st Century Competencies. In 2015, building on this earlier gathering, a new working group was founded to provide a space for members to work share their progress and problems on pursuing 21st century competencies in their systems. The first meeting of the working group took place in Shanghai, following the annual symposium in mid November. A report emerging from the meeting is currently being produced and will be available in the Spring. 

The working group coincided with the founding by the Asia Society of the Center for Global Education, which was launched in New York City simultaneously with the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals at the UN. With the Center, Asia society hopes to be a platform to bring people together around key conversations about the future of education. Asia Society has a strong tradition of work on the notion of ‘global competence’, a term to represent the set of knowledge and skills that young people – and adults – will need to navigate their future in an increasingly globalized world. In the coming years, the Center will be well-placed to support the working group with thought leadership and opportunities to learn from outside partners.

Defining 21st century competencies

The cities in the working group do not all share exactly the same definition ‘21st century competencies’. Where they overlap is that each seeks to develop in students certain ways of being and doing, such as communication, collaboration and creative thinking. The notion of these abilities as 21st century competencies or skills has been circulating in education for some time. It has been furthered by a number of key collaborations, such as the international ACT21S; the Partnership for 21st century learning in the United States; or UNESCO in the form of their work on transversal competencies.

Simultaneously, there has been a push from some academics to understand the importance in education and life outcomes of ‘noncognitive skils’. This term has been popularized by economist Professor James Heckman, who uses it to describe personal qualities not measured by standardized tests. Heckman and colleagues argue that noncognitive skills are particularly important to focus on because they can grow over the lifetime, perhaps even more so than traditional intelligence (most psychologists would not disagree, although many argue that the term is unhelpful as there is these skills and traits certainly involve cognition). Definitions of noncognitive skills have considerable overlap with 21st century skills, to the point that many now use the terms interchangeably.

The proliferation of frameworks of 21st and noncognitive skills has created a concern that diverging definitions might impede international progress on researching and assessing these skills. Asia Society is conscious of this problem, but instead of pushing one framework over others, they are interested in finding the common ground between them. In January 2015, Asia Society published Rosetta Stone for Noncognitive Skills, suggesting that ‘the big 5’ personality traits, a mainstay of traditional psychology, can act as a mainstay to draw parallels between different frameworks.

One advantage of this connection to personality psychology is that the big five have been measured reliably in people in every continent of the world, and in many different types of contexts. These constructs therefore provide one way to overcome the measurement limitations that dog many discussions of 21st century competencies. This is not to say there is not much more work to be done – measuring a personality trait is quite different from assessing a competency as it develops in children and over time. Developmental psychologists and psychometricians continue to grapple with the extent to which these competencies can be measured in ways that respect context and developmental trajectories. As a basis for practical work, however, the ‘rosetta stone’ of the big five provides a helpful cross-cultural foundation.

From frameworks to pedagogy

As described above, the goal of the working group is not to try to define a common set of 21st century competencies, but to help cities in the work of implementing the type of education that can meet their aspirations for 21st century competencies, however defined in their system. A central question for all systems is ‘how might these competencies be integrated into the learning that is already happening, and not seen as extra?’ In particular, GCEN hopes to advance thinking on how a system can support the development of these competencies for all students, drawing on the focus of the last network meeting, equity.

As well as differing definitions, the systems in the working group have found they have different reasons for focussing on 21st century competencies. In the US cities, the main driver for this focus is the idea that these ‘noncognitive skills’ support academic success. In contrast, in many of the East Asian cities, the focus is related to goals to enhance student wellbeing. In Seoul, for example, they hope that a focus on developing noncognitive skills will help students develop the mindsets and attitudes to relieve them from anxiety. They are driven by the latest results from the PISA survey showing that students in South Korea have the lowest happiness in school of students anywhere in the OECD.

The GELP workshop discussion this initiative raised even more reasons for focussing on 21st century competencies. One New Zealand principal saw her school’s bilingual education program as a means to build interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. Over and above becoming fluent in Maori as well as English, her students were developing awareness of other cultures and how to communicate across them, as well as confidence in themselves and their own culture.

Other participants from New Zealand believed that their system was well positioned to develop 21st century competencies because these competencies are already written into the national curriculum. They would like to see more in terms of reporting on these competencies, and developing a research base on how to develop them most effectively.


Many systems are already developing comprehensive strategies designed to enhance 21st century competencies among students. In this workshop, Alexis Menten, an Executive Director at the Asia Society, introduced the strategies of two cities who are part of the GCEN working group.

In New York City, the largest school district in the United States, the Department of Education aims to promote opportunities for students to develop important skills outside of school hours. The city’s Comprehensive After School System (COMPASS) maps where and how students are taking part in outside school activities. Also in New York City, the Student Agency Improvement Community in using improvement science strategies to develop new approach to develop confident, engaged and proactive students.

In Seoul, the Free Semester Program aims to give middle school students opportunity to discover passions outside school, and develop skills in diverse settings. (For details on this program, please see this past GELP case study). At GELP, we heard an update from Professor Seyeoung Chun, President of the Smart Education Society and former President of the Korean Education and Research Information Service (KERIS), about how the first try-outs of this program have been proceeding. Despite inevitable challenges in getting teachers and students to adapt timetables to allow for these new experiences, the program is still underway, and set to roll out across South Korea next year.

The 21st Century competencies working group is just at the start of its work, and there are many questions it will continue to puzzle through as it strives to move from frameworks to practice. One question that lingers in our discussion is whether it will be possible to ‘integrate’ these competencies into existing education systems without considerable reworking of assessment and examination systems. As several jurisdictions go through the process of embedding new curricula which include cross-cutting competencies – including systems that have participated in GELP such as in Australia, British Columbia and Finland – they have been thinking carefully about what this will mean for assessment. There will be lots of opportunities to learn from each other on this question in the years ahead.