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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Making Sense of 21st Century Competencies

By Jonathan E. Martin — May 21, 2015 5 min read
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As the list of 21st century skills grows, we need new ways to connect them to each other and attach them to longstanding psychological constructs. Jonathan E. Martin, a former independent school headmaster who now writes and consults on 21st century learning and assessments, shares highlights from a new paper co-authored with Richard Roberts, Professional Examinations Service and Gabriel Olaru, University of Ulm, Germany and published by Asia Society and Professional Examination Service.

“It’s become a Tower of Babel,” Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Chris Gabrieli said recently when presenting at the Brookings panel, “Ready to be Counted? Incorporating Noncognitive Skills into Education Policy.” Gabrieli listed the nearly dozen labels used to describe 21st century skills or noncognitive skills, including character, soft skills, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and many more.

It’s not just here in the U.S.: this is a global phenomenon. In one recent post, UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education examined the shift toward transversal competencies in the Asia-Pacific region. The OECD calls them skills for social progress.

These terms each come with a different list of associated skills, strengths, competencies, and attributes. The table we’ve prepared below names almost 50 of these skills, and it isn’t even exhaustive.

As the pendulum swings back from the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind, researchers, policymakers, and educators alike are returning their attention to the enormous importance of student affect, attitude, and effort, and their ability to self-control, collaborate, and commit themselves to learning. Nearly every school system now recognizes that in order to have a world-class education system, students must be advancing in more than the cognitive and academic achievement domain.

To make the most of the opportunity to address the social and emotional skills gap, we have to be able to make sense of the Tower of Babel. How do we know how all these various skills and attributes relate to one another—and whether one group’s teamwork is another’s collaboration; one group’s work ethic is another’s responsibility?

The Big Five Factor Personality Model
There is a powerful way to reconcile, translate, and unify the myriad of terms and constructs that have emerged over the past decade. It isn’t new, and in fairness, in many psychology circles it is no secret, but it has been problematically underappreciated in education. It is the “Big Five” factor model of personality.

Under the assumption that all important matters in life have been named and are thus represented in our language, researchers in the 1930s searched Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1925 for English words that described human characteristics. In total, 18,000 English words were selected, with 4,500 being classified as descriptions of stable personal traits. They then analyzed the underlying patterns among them to reduce the massive list of traits, and studied personality data from different sources (e.g., interpersonal ratings, objective measures of daily behavior, and questionnaire results), and measured these traits in diverse populations to arrive at first 16, and then five, major personality factors.

These analyses consistently yielded five factors that were labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism/Emotional Stability, and Openness.

Even though they were first discovered in the English language, replication studies in other major languages resulted in the same five factors. Indeed, this research has proven the Big Five’s universality in the vast majority of countries, cultures, and languages across the world. In short, the Big Five play an important role in human nature, independent of the environment writ large. See below for the countries where the Big Five have thus far been replicated.

The Big Five can therefore be considered as something of a Rosetta Stone for understanding noncognitive skills. The Rosetta Stone, by offering the same content presented in the words of three different languages, allowed archaeologists to understand how each language related to the others on the stone, and how different words in different languages mean the same underlying thing. Using the Big Five factors, we can take concepts expressed as time management in one list, grit in another, and responsibility in still a third, and understand their connectedness by seeing them all as manifestations of conscientiousness, at least in significant measure.

Assessing the Big Five Factors
Reconciling the wildly scattered array of critical 21st century competencies by translating through the Big Five provides another advantage: it attaches them to decades of psychological research and assessment. We can use the evidence-based techniques from that deep research archive as the foundation upon which to build reliable and valid assessments. As can be seen in the full paper, Big Five factors can be effectively measured via self-assessment, forced-choice, other-ratings, situational judgment tasks, bio-data, and more. The tools are fast becoming available to establish noncognitive assessment on a level equal to that of cognitive/academic achievement.

Today we know from a series of important meta-analyses, particularly those of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign psychologist Brent Roberts and his team, that personality traits are as, or often more, able to be influenced than are cognitive abilities. These areas of student development are entirely worthy of our attention.

What This Means for Education
Now it is up to educators and education decision makers. The excuse, “we can’t measure that,” no longer exists when it comes to critical noncognitive attributes. Educators already understand the importance of these skills, but major gaps persist in awareness of the strategies they might use to translate noncognitive measurement data into action, including techniques for teaching, learning, and assessment.

If we are to prepare our current generation of primary and secondary education students for the demands of a vastly more competitive global economy, it is time to make the commitment, choose the framework, embed them in education practice, implement the assessments, and use them to drive improvement of outcomes for our students.


Follow Jonathan, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Images: Asia Society and Professional Examination Service

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