Skills for the 21st Century: Implications for Education Essay for the Kenniskamer of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science
Rolf van der Velden
Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market
School of Business and Economics
Executive summary The world is changing rapidly in a lot of ways, but the dominant change is in ICT. Changing technology has far-reaching implications for how we act and interact at work, in education, in civic life and at home. Furthermore, this change is in large part the driving force behind many of the other major changes, such as globalization, flexibilization and the polarization of the job structure. Although we can hardly claim it is driving demographic changes, in combination demographic changes and ICT developments have much stronger effects than either would have alone.
These changes have led many scholars to point to a new set of skills – the so-called 21st century skills – that are thought to be essential for people’s ability to function and participate fully in today’s world. While we do not dispute the importance of these 21stcentury skills, we do caution against blindly pursuing these skills and neglecting other more traditional classes of skill. There is good reason to believe that general skills such as reading and math – the so-called basic skills – lie at the basis of the development of all other kinds of skills, including the 21st century skills. We ignore this basis at our peril. In addition, the changes brought by ICT, globalization, etc. mean that the world has become a more complex place, with more complex technologies, organizational forms, and required knowledge bases in every sector of the economy than ever before. Dealing with such complexity requires correspondingly complex sets of specialized knowledge and abilities – the so-called specific skills. The application and development of 21st century skills takes place in large part in combination with these specific skills, so again, we ignore them at our peril. Educational policy and practice should proceed from the insight that skills of individual human beings form a complete interdependent package of all these three kinds of skills: basic skills, specific skills and 21st century skills. It is far more fruitful to view 21st century skills in relation to the basic skills that underlie them and the specific skills that they combine with in concrete purposive action.
Existing schemes for classifying skills are useful because they give us a way of thinking about, discussing, evaluating and analyzing the otherwise hidden world of knowledge, talents, motivations and so on that every human being carries inside him/herself. However, classification often has the unintended consequence of focusing attention on just one dimension or one aspect of human skills, so we lose sight of the big picture of how the different dimensions and aspects of skills combine to form a coherent whole. Especially in the changing world of today where education is under pressure to accommodate a whole range of new skills next to the existing ones, we need a way of seeing where these new skills fit in. In this essay we present a framework for the evaluation of what we know about our current situation in terms of various kinds of skills and learning which alerts us to gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled for future policy purposes. It also performs a similar function when looking at the challenges facing education and what education can do to meet these challenges.
The Netherlands currently scores quite well in terms of basic skills, but there are indications that we are falling behind in terms of developing top talent. There is also a worrying trend towards lower scores over time in math, science and reading, especially for the younger age cohort. There is less evidence of where we stand in terms of 21st century skills and specific skills, but we appear to do quite well in terms of problem-solving and less well in terms of civic competences. For ICT skills we do not as yet have any internationally comparable data. From Dutch research, it appears that young Dutch people have quite good medium-related ICT skills, but somewhat worryingly, perform much worse in terms of content-related ICT skills, which are much closer to the core of 21st century skills. There is a large gap in our knowledge in terms of most 21st century skills themselves, such as creativity, critical thinking, learning skills, socio-communicative skills and self-management skills. There is some evidence for improvement in some of these areas, but stronger measures are clearly needed. In the absence of these we are left with the conclusion that the Netherlands generally performs quite well internationally in terms of producing skills, but there is some concern that we are falling behind in terms of top talent, and that our content-related ICT skills are less well-developed than our medium-related ICT skills.
There is a clear need for more information on other 21st century skills and also on specific skills, and to continue monitoring basic skills via large-scale assessments. Recent initiatives to make use of new technologies to make large-scale assessments more continuous and authentic perhaps offer the promise that they can in time be integrated in a fruitful way directly into the learning process. The results of these initiatives warrant our close attention, but whatever their outcome is, it is clear that there is a need for more authentic, formative assessment methods in schools. There are already clear insights on the conditions under which formative assessment methods can be effective, but these need to be developed more in relation to new technologies currently emerging which create new possibilities and also new challenges in this area. It is far from clear that schools are equipped to deal with these challenges, raising the risk that what could be potentially a boon can end up as a burden on schools.
This applies not just to assessment, but to education in general. Within a very few years a tsunami of ICT is set to wash over education, and our education system is at present not fully equipped to deal with this. Young people are more ICT-savvy than their teachers, and ICT will enter the classroom whether we want it to or not. The problem is that the medium-related skills of young people are not well matched by content-related skills, and that teachers are currently not well placed to guide them in learning the latter type of skills. Nor are teachers currently sufficiently ICT-literate to make use of the enormous potential new technology offers in terms of interactive and iterative learning and assessment, open source content and the like.
In view of the huge challenges facing education in other areas, it is essential that schools make technology work for them, and certainly not against them. Demographic changes mean that student populations are becoming more diverse, and there is a need for a flexible response in dealing with strong individual differences in background, talent, culture and so on, and in choosing how to distribute the increasingly strained resources over the competing objectives of developing top talent, taking care of at-risk groups and all the while maintaining educational quality for the core group with middle-range abilities. Innovative learning environments have already been extensively implemented in Dutch education, but there is concern at the effectiveness of these methods if not administered appropriately. There is little doubt that such methods can be effective in fostering 21st century skills in areas such as teamwork, communication and problem solving, but there is some concern that the conditions are not being met for these methods to be effective in developing basic skills, core subject knowledge and domain-specific skills. There is a need for learning models that more explicitly explain how these various types of skills can best be developed in relation to each other, what the optimal timing and learning sequence is, and - because education cannot do everything – what things have the greatest comparative advantage for development in education and which things can be best developed in other life spheres. It is of key importance that the insights into these conditions for educational effectiveness be updated to allow education to make optimal use of new developments in ICT. Here as well, it is important to teach the teachers, so that they are in a position to make effective use of the available tools and guide the process so that knowledge is acquired in a balanced way.
1. Introduction The world is changing rapidly in a lot of ways, but we will argue in this essay that the dominant change is in ICT. Changing technology has far-reaching implications for how we act and interact at work, in education, in civic life and at home. Many of the other changes that have taken place in recent decades can be related to the increased importance of ICT, either because the changes themselves are partly driven by developments in ICT, or because the consequences of these changes has been strongly influenced by ICT. In addition to this, a number of new developments in ICT have direct consequences for the way in which education is organized.
These changes inevitably have important consequences for the set of skills needed in order for individuals to be able to function adequately in today’s world, and to ensure growth, prosperity and social harmony in modern societies. More than ever before, the world is looking towards education to help prepare citizens to deal with the challenges presented by these changes. At the same time, education is facing other challenges of its own, such as the expansion of the higher education sector, the increasing pressure on educational budgets, the need to successfully implement innovative modes of teaching and learning, the need to balance the needs of the broad mass of students while still striving for academic excellence, and so on. In this essay, we present a framework for understanding the full range of skills Dutch education may be called on to provide, and develop some recommendations for how it can overcome some of the major obstacles it inevitably faces in pursuing its goals.
The outline of the essay is as follows. In Section 2 we will sketch the main changes going on in the world that are expected to have a direct or indirect impact on the skill requirements of the population. Following that, in Section 3, we look at various ways scholars have attempted to classify skills and competencies, and we will present a framework that combines the main elements of existing classifications. Section 4 summarizes the current state of knowledge about the state of the Dutch education system in terms of basic skills, civic competences, ICT literacy, educational attainment levels and drop-outs. Section 5 takes a look at some issues related to measurement and evaluation, both in large scale assessment surveys and at the level of schools. Section 6 sketches the main challenges education is facing, and Section 7 lists some recommendations as to the course of action that in our view needs to be taken. Section 8 summarizes our main conclusions.
2. How is the world changing and how does this affect the skill needs of the population? The rapid changes going on in today’s world present profound challenges for education systems. The changes are many and varied and affect both the demand and supply side of the labour market. We will start with the ICT revolution as this has also affected most of the other changes or has had an impact on their consequences. We will then continue with a number of related changes on the demand side of the labour market: globalization, flexibilization, and the polarization of the job structure. Next we will highlight the demographic changes that affect the supply side of the labour market. We will finish this section by highlighting the impact of these changes on the skill needs of the population.
ICT Arguably the most important change of all has been in the upsurge in the development and usage of information and communication technologies at work and in day to day life. Many of the other changes that have taken place in recent decades can be related to the increased importance of ICT, either because the changes themselves are partly driven by developments in ICT, or because the consequences of these changes have been strongly influenced by ICT. More than ever before, the world is looking towards education to help prepare citizens to deal with the challenges presented by these changes. In addition to this, ICT developments have direct consequences for the way in which education is organized. Nowhere is it more important for education to come to grips with these challenges than in the Netherlands, with its open economy strongly weighted towards information-intensive services and its high internet density.
The changes in the economy and broader society as a result of the rapid technological developments in recent decades are well documented. Voogt and Pareja Roblin (2010) point to the shift in emphasis from more factual and procedural knowledge to more conceptual and meta-cognitive knowledge as countries make the transition from an industrial to a knowledge society. In its recent Horizon Report, the New Media Consortium (Johnson et al., 2010) identifies key trends, challenges and technologies associated with the ICT revolution. The report focuses primarily on the direct impact of these developments for higher education, but much of what is contained in the report is relevant for other levels of education and indeed for the way people function in the economy and society as a whole. The authors point to the unprecedented range of resources and relationships that are easily accessible to anybody connected to the internet. As a result, people are increasingly expected to choose for themselves the timing and location for working, learning and studying. In addition, the technologies open up new opportunities for far reaching collaboration, whereby physical proximity of the collaborating parties is no longer a prerequisite. They point out the increasing importance of cloud-based technologies that do not presuppose that the user is aware of the physical location and configuration of the systems delivering the services, and the systems of decentralized IT support that accompany such technologies.
Looking towards the future, the authors of the Horizon report point to six technologies that are set to emerge in the next few years and which are expected to have important consequences for teaching, learning and investigative inquiry in general. In the short term, the authors expect developments in mobile computing and open content to have an important impact. Mobile computing refers to the hand-held devices most people already carry. The capabilities of the more advanced of these devices are rapidly rendering the term “mobile telephone” inadequate as a description. The widespread usage of such devices creates new opportunities for collaboration, flexibility and experimentation in learning and at work. There may also be a downside, in that the use of such devices may form a threat in terms of privacy, monitoring and control, as well as the possibility of a new digital divide between those who have access to such technologies and possess the skills to make full use of them and those who lack such access and/or skills. Open content refers to the increasing movement in education to take advantage of the almost unlimited availability of information on the internet rather than relying on in-house knowledge and source materials. Much of this is now highly formalized in the form of free online course materials that can be accessed by anybody anywhere in the world. Although the trend towards increased usage of open content in education has been stimulated by a desire to gain a grip on the rising costs of education and to provide access to learning for those in areas where such access is otherwise difficult, it is important to remark that this development has tremendous positive potential for education, and that its popularity is also a reflection of student choice as well as educators’ convenience. For the first time in history, it will in principle be possible for every student to follow courses developed and sometimes even presented by the most distinguished scholars in the world.