Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Why measure the skills children and youth need for life?

13 Sep 2021
Why measure the skills children and youth need for life?

By Bassem Nasir, Manuel Cardoso, Rachel Cooper

Transferable skills – sometimes also called life skills, 21st Century skills or socioemotional skills – are essential to all of us and act as “the glue of all skills”, including foundational skills, digital skills, job-specific skills, and entrepreneurial skills, enabling us to learn, work, participate in society, and in a nutshell, live. They play a role in every aspect of the lives of children and young people now, and later, as adults.

Skills like academic grit and problem solving may help us learn foundational skills like reading and mathematics which are the gatekeepers to further academic learning (for example the UNICEF-supported Tanzania Life Skills Assessment provides information on the connections between transferable skills and foundational skills). Skills like empathy help us to become good citizens, both of one’s own country and the world, and to become good employees or employers. We need a whole range of skills like creativity and critical thinking to get that job, or to start that business.

Figure 1: UNICEF Skills Typology

Transferable skills develop progressively from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood and are to varying degrees malleable. Besides foundational skills, transferable skills are a key priority for the UNICEF 2019-2030 Education Strategy “Every Child learns”. Their development is a highly complex process that is not fully understood: one skill affects other skills and development is shaped by multiple internal and external factors, including experiences in school, at home, with peers, parents, and others. Many education systems in the world have promoted the development of those skills through integration into curricula and/or through stand-alone modules and/or extra-curricular activities. They are also essential parts of non-formal education programmes and others programming meant to promote employability, entrepreneurship, civic engagement, empowerment, or other development outcomes.

As such, understanding what transferable skills children and youth have, and what skills they need to develop is important for educators, policymakers, programme implementers, employers, parents and caregivers, and of course young people themselves.

So, how do we know if children and youth have these skills?

For the most part, we do not know the answer in a very accurate way. Ideally, learners would be observed in a wide variety of everyday situations to understand what skills they have in their arsenal to utilize in different scenarios. In reality, this would be impractical and expensive to implement, especially on a large scale. So, we must develop different tools that give us this information.

Developing these tools is technically challenging. There is no global consensus on how to define specific transferable skills, how they progress, and what the right benchmarks of those skills should be. To complicate things further, the definition of some skills can differ based on cultural variations. For example, defining effective communication in Rwanda might look different from how you define it in Bhutan.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing interest by governments, donors, private sector, academia, and other stakeholders in developing specific tools to measure transferable skills for different purposes and contexts. Several of these tools show promise at providing reliable data to answer some key questions such as:

As a policymaker, in particular in the context of education sector planning, how do I know if all children and youth in my country have transferable skills? Some tools give us an overall picture of transferable skills in a population (not on an individual level). The results of these large-scale assessments can often provide more detailed information on skills development for particular groups, and can be further analyzed to provide snapshots of certain population groups to feed into the design of strategies and policies, and to monitor progress made at the national level over time. Two UNICEF-supported examples: the Life Skills and Citizenship Education initiative, being developed in MENA provides an assessment for the skills demonstrated in Figure 2; and the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), with results already disseminated for six countries. These tools are a great starting point for specific contexts, and help to initiate conversations in other regions about measuring transferable skills. Missing is how these relate to one another and can be used across contexts.

Figure 2: MENA Life Skills Conceptualization

As an education sector plan/programme implementer, does my plan/programme support the development of transferable skills? Some tools evaluate the effectiveness of programming on transferable skills. One example: Save the Children’s ISELA (International Social and Emotional Learning Assessment).

As a teacher, do I know if my students are developing transferable skills? Some tools can be used by teachers and practitioners to get feedback on the progress students are making in their development of transferable skills, to be used to inform teaching practices and methods. One UNICEF-supported example: the Holistic Assessment of Learning implemented in Syria.

As a learner, how do I show that I possess the transferable skills needed for future education and/or employment? There are different types of assessments that certify learners’ skills and enable them to transition to further education or to employment. Some tools rely on individual learners demonstrating skills through projects or portfolios. Many of those are privately owned/non-open sources and rely on a fee per use model such as Tessera by ACT which is intended to certify transferable skills for employment.

Open access tools for the assessment of transferable skills are scarce, and many of them are still at the stages of development and validation. UNICEF intends to rally global, regional and national partners around the goal of making tools free of cost to national stakeholders and to develop tools to answer those questions and more.

This blogpost is the first one in a series that will go deeper, but still in non-technical terms, into the issues and examples mentioned above.

Bassem Nasir, Manuel Cardoso, and Rachel Cooper are education specialists with UNICEF’s Programme Group.

*United Nations Children’s Fund, Global Framework on Transferable Skills, UNICEF, New York, 2019.