Skills for the 21st Century: Implications for Education

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The Horizon report points to two technologies expected to play a significant role in the mid-term, that is in the next two to three years. These technologies are in the use of electronic books and of simple augmented reality. Although electronic books have been available in some form for several decades already, the authors point out that recent developments in reading devices opens up new possibilities for acquiring, storing, reading and annotating documents, making it possible for people to travel with a virtual library and to use the information in a highly flexible way. As for simple augmented reality, whereas traditional devices were unwieldy and usually required the user to be tied to a fixed computer and use cumbersome headsets and the like, the cameras and monitors in modern mobile devices enable their users to easily combine real world and virtual data, using such things as GPS and image recognition software to overlay the real-world image on the screen with useful data on the objects portrayed. A little further down the road, but still likely to be implemented on a widespread basis within some four to five years, gesture-based computing and visual data analysis are likely to radically change the way we interact with computers to control applications and interpret data.
For the first time, the marketplace which graduates enter after leaving education has become truly global, and the firms and organizations for which graduates work have become increasingly international in their orientation. As a recent series of articles by BBC online (Schifferes, 2007) makes clear, the trend towards globalization of the economy is inextricably linked to technological developments such as those described above. Globalization as a phenomenon dates back at least to the 1950s, but under the influence of developments in ICT (as well as of the liberalization of trade and finance, which in turn has also benefited from the vastly increased possibilities for storage and transfer of information made possible by the ICT revolution) the process has increased dramatically in pace and scope in recent years. The falling costs of transport and communication and the increasing tendency for consumers and retailers to buy on a global rather than local market have led to dramatic changes in production processes. Companies use the internet to manage both their supply chain and their support services, in many cases outsourcing the latter to third world countries like India with cheap but nonetheless well educated workforces. Information technologies are also a major driving influence behind the liberalization of capital markets. Predictably, such developments have a major impact on the demands made on the workforce in countries like the Netherlands. In many cases Dutch companies and Dutch workers are experiencing direct competition from comparable companies and workers in other countries, and are being forced to find new ways to compete. No longer is it sufficient to fall back on a relative monopoly of local knowledge, it is becoming increasingly important to compete through access to global knowledge. The speed of the developments and the adjustments that are necessary require much greater flexibility.
In addition to the effects of globalization on the economy forcing a fundamental rethinking of the set of skills needed by the workforce in a country, globalization is having a direct effect on education, particularly higher education, and much of this is also driven by the ICT revolution. A recent OECD report (2009) points to the increased trend towards globalization of the market for higher education, and predicts a growing international mobility of students, faculty and institutions. Although this mobility as such is not directly based on ICT developments, it would not be feasible without the access to information on education institutions throughout the world that is now freely accessible to everyone through internet. Similarly, academic research has seen, and is likely to continue to see, an increased trend towards international collaboration and competition. In both education and research, there is a trend towards decreased dominance by North America and an increase in influence of Europe and particularly of Asia. Increased world-wide competition has led to, and will continue to lead to, a trend towards more market-based thinking in education, and has contributed to an erosion of boundaries between public and private education.
The simple fact that the world is changing so rapidly requires a much greater degree of flexibility on the part of workers and of citizens at large than hitherto was the case. This need to be flexible is made more urgent by virtue of the nature of the changes involved. The shift from an industrial to a knowledge society requires people to deal less with objects, machines, materials and so on which are by their nature relatively fixed, at least over short periods of time, and more with ideas, concepts, insights, and so on that can change on time scales of days, hours or even minutes. This requires a high degree of functional flexibility at work and in daily life. In addition, the unprecedented level of interconnectivity made possible through the internet and in particular by the plethora of hand-held mobile devices currently or soon available effectively means that people are increasingly expected to conduct their daily business at any time and in any place: in the train, while driving their car, or in their free time. This inevitably blurs the dividing line between work and private life. Moreover, at work it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to withdraw into the relative peace and quiet of their own office or workroom, since they can be contacted at any time by clients, colleagues and others with requests, suggestions, advice or complaints. Within private life the dividing line between time traditionally reserved for family and loved ones and time spent on recreational activities outside the home, civic life and the like has also become fuzzier. All of this places heavy demands on individuals’ ability to manage their time in a flexible yet ordered manner. In education, new technologies such as mentioned above create enormous opportunities for innovation, but this will inevitably also lead to a high required level of flexibility on the part of both educators and students in order to cope with the additional layers of complexity and choice that are becoming available. Ignoring these changes is unlikely to be an option: most of these technologies will enter the classroom whether invited or not.
Globalization and the associated trend towards stronger competition in the economy also demand a highly flexible response by entrepreneurs, managers and employees. In a global marketplace, the criteria for success or failure can change from one day to the next. Also under influence of changing technologies, skills that used to be highly valued become obsolete, the content of jobs changes, new jobs are created while old jobs are abandoned, new firms replace old ones that have closed or gone bankrupt, and entire new industries are arising while old ones are disappearing onto the dust heap of history. Although it would probably be unduly alarmist to suggest that long-term work contracts will become a thing of the past, most people will need to adapt their career plans on a more or less continuous basis, and even those who remain employed in the same firm for a long period of time will need to be able to adapt to a changing package of work tasks. In addition, as a result of greater global interconnectivity, people will increasingly find themselves collaborating with colleagues who are not in the same physical location, but may be in a different branch or partner company in a different part of the country or even on the other side of the world. This adds an additional dimension to flexibility, namely the ability to adapt to different and changing (corporate) cultures. In education, the increased trend towards globalization of the market for education (in particular higher education), means that teachers are increasingly expected to deal flexibly with a much more culturally diverse student population than was previously the case.
Polarization of the job structure
Levy (2010) points out how computerisation has changed the content of work tasks. The logic is that all routine tasks can be expressed in simple rules. Manual routine tasks can therefore be performed by robots (mechanisation) and routine cognitive tasks can be performed by computers. Some tasks can also easily be outsourced to low wage countries. This leads to a polarisation of the job structure, with a growth in jobs that involve high level expert thinking and complex communication, a gradual decline in the share of jobs that involve non-routine manual tasks and a sharp decline in routine manual and cognitive tasks. This polarisation sharply affects the number of jobs in the middle of the earnings distributions, like clerks, assembly line workers, and other jobs that mainly involve routine tasks. The following figure shows how the middle tercile has decreased in the period 1993-2006.

Figure 1 Change in employment shares by occupation in EU and US, 1993-2006

Source: Autor (2010), adopted from Goos, Manning and Salomons (2009)

Demographic changes
The previous changes were all related to the demand side of the labour market. But there are also a number of demographic trends that have a major impact on the supply side of the labour market and are likely to have an impact on education systems throughout the world. Most western countries experience major demographic changes, as populations have become relatively older and more culturally mixed. This has been accompanied by changes in social attitudes, with a tendency towards more individualization often placing pressure on social cohesion and solidarity. Especially the ageing of the working population has profound effects on overall skill levels. Most cognitive abilities such as memory function, information processing speed and attentional capacity tend to decline with advancing age. The following graph shows for the Netherlands how the level of literacy and numeracy skills declines with age.
Figure 2 Changes in literacy and numeracy skills over the life course

Source: IALS and ALL, own computations (see Fouarge and De Grip, 2011)

The single most important finding of IALS and ALL was that skill loss related to ageing was sufficient to offset all of the expected gains from increasing educational quality and quantity (Murray et al., 2005). Until now, only scattered studies on different aspects of skills obsolescence have been published. Most of these studies were published in periods in which unemployment was high. This increased the focus on the adverse impact of skills obsolescence for the workers involved. It is interesting to note that in recent policy debates on skills obsolescence and ‘lifelong learning’ the main focus has shifted to the waste of valuable human resources and the sub-optimal performance of workers with inadequate skills. This brings skills obsolescence to the heart of the debate on the main economic challenge western economies face: realizing the transformation towards a knowledge-based society with an ageing population.
The effect on skill requirements
As Voogt and Pareja Roblin (2010) make clear, the shift from an industrial society to an information and knowledge society has far-reaching implications for the kinds of skills needed by the workforce and the population at large. This shift was already noted in the early 1990s by Reich (1992), who remarked on the increased need for both knowledge and socio-communicative skills. Voogt and Pareja Roblin assert that although the changes are taking place in widely differing sectors of the economy, there is a common set of core “21st century skills” that are needed in virtually all domains, comprising cooperation, communication, ICT literacy, and social and/or cultural skills, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Some models studied by them also referred to learning skills, self-management, planning, flexibility, willingness to take risks, metacognitive skills, entrepreneurial skills, as well as core subjects at school (such as math, language and science) and interdisciplinary thinking. These are the skills that according to many are needed in order to function adequately in, and make a useful contribution to, the knowledge and information society in the 21st century.
While the importance of these 21st century skills is indisputable, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that other skills are needed as well. The OECD (Thorn, 2009, see also Murray et al. 2005; Schleicher 2008) in particular has emphasized the importance of general basic skills such as literacy and numeracy for the chances of success at work and life in general for individual citizens, as well as for the social and economic well-being of nations. Furthermore, as we will argue below, there is good reason to believe that such basic skills lie at the basis of the development of all other kinds of skills, including the 21st century skills. At the same time, the increasing complexity of the world has led to a huge increase in the importance of the highly specific skills that are needed in order to be able to function in particular economic domains. The concrete development and application of 21st century skills takes place in large part in combination with these specific skills.
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 skills in relation to the basic skills that underlie them and the specific skills that they combine with in concrete purposive action. Before addressing the question of what education can do to achieve these aims, it is useful to look a little more closely at the nature of these various skills and the manner in which scholars from various disciplines have attempted to classify them.

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