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School & District Management Opinion

Asia Shifts From Rote Learning to 21st Century Skills

By Satoko Yano & Mark Manns — March 09, 2015 5 min read
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Across education systems in the Asia-Pacific region, there is a growing emphasis on transversal competencies, better known in the U.S. as 21st century skills, and a move away from “traditional academic” studies, such as rote learning. This shift appears to stem from a broad range of incentives, including the need to boost economic development and remain competitive, as well as the need to foster greater tolerance, respect, and understanding with regards to gender equality, cultural diversity, and the environment. Satoko Yano and Mark Manns from the Education Policy and Reform Unit, UNESCO Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, share highlights from a new research study.

A new publication from UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education examines how different countries and economies in the region define and apply transversal competencies in their education policies and practices. Transversal Competencies in Education Policy and Practice (Phase 1), was conducted as part of the research activities of the Asia-Pacific Education Research Institutes Network (ERI-Net) in 2013 with the participation of ten countries and economies—Australia, Shanghai (China), Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (China), India, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

What Are Transversal Competencies and How Are They Defined?
To date, no consensus has been reached on a single term for referring to non-academic skills, non-cognitive skills, or 21st century skills. All of these terms broadly refer to and encompass skills, competencies, values, and attitudes required for the holistic development of learners, such as: collaboration, self-discipline, resourcefulness, and respect for the environment. ERI-Net members agreed on the term transversal competences broken into five domains that encompass this broad spectrum of skills (see table below).

Lessons Learned: Experiences from the Asia-Pacific Region
The ten education systems documented in the study have all recently (and separately) introduced or moved to strengthen existing dimensions of transversal competencies in their education policies and curricula. The research also reveals that the method of integration differs greatly by education system, reflecting the diversity and multiplicity of the region. For example, countries may integrate these skills within specific subjects, across all subjects in the curriculum, or in extra-curricular activities outside the classroom. All countries and economies involved responded that they aim to integrate transversal competencies across all subjects, yet some skills are subject-specific (ie: information and communications technologies (ICTs), or citizenship education) or more suitable to extra-curricular activities.

For example, the Australian curriculum implicitly and explicitly includes transversal competencies in every educational activity. The curriculum provides detailed information on each capability and how it can be adopted across each subject. In Thailand, the core basic education curriculum specifies life skills as important capabilities that every student should develop. Life skills are integrated into every subject and also taught specifically through various projects, which require cooperation from school administrators, parents, and communities. Malaysia utilizes a cross-curricular method but also promotes transversal competencies through extra-curricular activities, such as participation in societies, clubs, games, and sports. In Mongolia, the teaching of transversal competencies implicitly occurs across all subjects, in individual electives, and through the “Upright Mongolian Child” program. In India, transversal competencies are integrated across subjects (e.g. language and science), while also stressed in a specific subject (moral education) and through extra-curricular activities.

In some cases, integration of transversal competencies has resulted in positive changes to these education systems. Anecdotal evidence from the research shows that for students, most improvements appear to have occurred in the inter-personal skills domain, such as communication, presentation, and discussion skills. The research also suggests that education reforms involving transversal competencies have enhanced the way teachers and schools work. For example, the reports from the Republic of Korea, Japan, Shanghai (China), and Thailand mention improved collaboration between parents, schools, and the local community.

Remaining Challenges and Future Recommendations
Issues discussed in the report include challenges arising from a lack of, or a vague definition of, transversal competencies in policy documents; operational challenges such as lack of adequate evaluation/assessment systems, lack of teaching and learning materials, and lack of teacher capacity; as well as systemic challenges including inconsistency between the importance of transversal competencies in the curriculum and the contents of the existing high-stake examinations, especially university entrance examinations.

The research also highlights some key recommendations for moving forward with integration into education policy:


  • Transversal competencies should not be introduced after basic literacy and numeracy are given first priority—they are relevant for all learners, at all levels, in formal and non-formal education, and at all stages of national development.

  • Awareness of transversal competencies among all stakeholders is crucial; teachers, parents, business, and the community need to be more aware and committed.

  • Transversal competencies need to be at the heart of education policy to ensure clarity and consistency between pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment.

  • Education systems need to better prepare teachers and education professionals to successfully facilitate the learning of transversal competencies.

Overall, the country cases are illustrative of an important global movement that calls for the need for education to move beyond the acquisition of knowledge and literacy and numeracy skills, which has been the dominant purpose cited in education discourse since the 1960s. Contrary to the widely held view that Asian education systems heavily emphasize traditional rote learning, this new research paints a picture of commitment and determination among the participating countries and economies to make transversal competencies a significant component of their education systems moving forward.

Follow UNESCO Asia-Pacific and Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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