3. A heuristic scheme for the classification of skill requirements in the 21stcentury There are few topics in the social sciences that have received more attention in recent years than that of the classification of knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies and the like. It is emphatically not the aim of this essay to provide a comprehensive overview of the literature on this topic. Our aim is more modest, namely to provide a brief analysis of what the purpose of such attempts at classification are, and to point out ways in which a balanced model taking account of the main concepts and dimensions covered by the literature can be used to guide educational policy, in particular in relation to the trends described in the previous section. We start by making a simple and rather obvious observation, namely that all typologies, classifications, skill dimensions and so on are in fact artificial constructs thought up by scholars, which only correspond roughly to the much more fuzzy reality of the many and diverse ways in which people can be “good at doing things”. In real living human beings, the knowledge, skills, and so on that they possess do not allow themselves to be bundled into convenient parcels, but are much more like localized accents or emphases in the interrelated whole of what people are capable of. For example, when we distinguish between, say, generic and specific skills, we conveniently ignore the fact that even the most “specific” of skills such as the ability to use advanced engineering software or to perform brain surgery involves the use of some very generic abilities such as the capacity to weigh different options for action and to act decisively even in case of doubt. Conversely, even generic skills such as analytical thinking are not applied in a substantive vacuum, but are used to assist decision making and guide action related to highly specific contexts, and are usually based on an existing body of specific knowledge related to those contexts. This realization does not render existing classifications and typologies meaningless, but does make us aware that they are nothing more or less than convenient constructs that allow us to structure our discussion and study of skills.
Specific and generic skills The above-mentioned distinction between specific and generic skills is one of the most basic distinctions that can be drawn, and has been used and developed extensively in the social sciences in recent decades. Like most typologies, it is also often subject to ambiguity and confusion. Human capital theorists such as Becker (1962) have drawn a distinction between firm-specific and general human capital in order to derive predictions related to the division of costs and benefits related to training in both types of capital. The idea behind this is that general human capital can be productively used in any firm or organization, suggesting that the costs of obtaining such knowledge and skills should be borne by the worker involved, whereas the relative uselessness of firm-specific human capital outside the firm in question implies that at least part of the costs should be borne by the firm. To this dichotomy can be added a third category, namely that of occupation-specific or domain-specific human capital, which can be applied in different firms or organizations, but only within a relatively narrow range of work tasks. In debates related to the Dutch education system with its extensive vocational components in both secondary and tertiary education, it is this latter meaning that is usually referred to when the term “specific skills” is used.
There is no need for us to delve too deeply into this discussion here, but a few observations are nonetheless pertinent to this essay. First of all, we wish to point out that discussions relating to ‘basic skills’, ‘21st century skills’, ‘key skills’ and such are heavily focused on generic skills, whereby a danger exists that the importance of highly specific knowledge and skills for functioning in work and everyday life will be underestimated. In the words of the German psychologist Weinert: “Over the last decades, the cognitive sciences have convincingly demonstrated that context-specific skills and knowledge play a crucial role in solving difficult tasks. Generally, key competencies cannot adequately compensate for a lack of content-specific competencies” (Weinert, 2001: 53). A second point to be made relates more directly to the above-mentioned trends, and more specifically to the fact that is that in a rapidly changing world specific skills can quickly become obsolete. At first sight this may appear at odds with the first observation, and suggest that specific skills are by nature transient and therefore not important, but this is not what we are suggesting. We rather point to the fact that the ability to acquire, refresh and update specific skills is becoming increasingly important. As many have pointed out, this underscores the importance of acquiring learning abilities as a way of dealing with the changes going on in the world. While we agree with this, we would add to this a third observation, often neglected in such discussions, namely that even when it has become obsolete, pre-existing specific knowledge and skills are often a prerequisite for learning new specific knowledge and skills. In turn, these reflections have implications for a fourth observation, that is that the dividing line between what is learned in formal education is subject to ongoing negotiations involving representatives of all major categories of stakeholders, including educational institutions, students, firms and organizations, employees and government. By this we mean that generic skills are not the exclusive domain of education, but can be developed outside education as well, and conversely, that occupation-specific skills and even firm-specific skills may enter the arena of formal education.
Innate abilities and learnable skills A second dichotomy is also important in relation to the discussion of the role of education, and that is the distinction between innate abilities and learnable skills. Like the distinction between specific and generic skills, it is somewhat misleading to view this as a strict dichotomy, since few skills can be placed neatly into one category or the other. Although the discussion of innate abilities is still somewhat controversial in some areas, these days most would agree that at least some individual differences in knowledge and skills are ultimately traceable to a biological or genetic source, and this applies more strongly to certain kinds of abilities than to others. However, it is equally difficult to identify areas of skills that are totally impervious to attempts to develop them further. In practice, it is more realistic to say that skills differ in the extent to which they can be learned. Like specific skills, the question of the extent to which attention is paid to learning different kinds of skills in education is not one that can be answered in a black and white way, but is likely to remain the subject of ongoing debate, taking account of the fact that all educational decisions involve a trade-off between different possibilities under conditions of limited resources.
Crystallized and fluid abilities Another relevant distinction is that between so-called crystallized and fluid abilities (see for example Murray et al., 2005). The latter refers to functions that involve controlled and effortful processing of novel information (cognitive mechanics), and the former to the representation of learned skills and access to knowledge (cognitive pragmatics). Crystallized abilities, otherwise known as the accumulated knowledge base (Carroll, 1993), refer to such things as language development, comprehension and lexical knowledge. Fluid abilities refer to reasoning abilities used to draw connections between concepts, to understand implications, to arrive at conclusions and so on.
The two abilities show markedly different patterns of development and decline over the life cycle (see Figure 3). Fluid abilities are far more sensitive to ageing. Fluid abilities typically start declining when people are in their mid twenties, while crystallized abilities may improve until and beyond even the age of seventy. The two most prominent symptoms of ‘usual’ cognitive ageing in daily life are a gradual reduction in memory retrieval and information processing speed. Stored information remains relatively intact, but access and retrieval becomes increasingly difficult for older individuals. Another feature that has received considerable interest in research is the reduced ability of older individuals to suppress or inhibit irrelevant information, making decision processes more complicated, and therefore slower.
The distinction between the two classes of abilities is important because the rapid changes driven by the ICT revolution will require that adults are able to update their skills on a regular basis and engage in lifelong learning. The success of the learning experiences later in life will depend strongly on their fluid abilities and for adults, the decline in fluid abilities is more likely to strongly hamper their working and everyday life than the decline in crystallised abilities.
Figure 3 Theoretical representation of ‘crystallised’ and ‘fluid’ abilities over the life span
Source: based on Cattell, 1987
Basic and advanced skills The key focus of most international studies of skill levels of the population, whether they be surveys of school-aged students (e.g. PISA, TIMMS) or of the working age population (IALS, ALL, PIAAC) has been on assessing levels of so-called basic skills (Thorn, 2009; Murray et al., 2005). These are skills such as literacy and numeracy skills that, although not sufficient to guarantee success in the workplace and in life in general, are thought to be certainly necessary, and to form in large part the basis for the development of other, more advanced skills.
The dichotomy can in our view be quite misleading. Juxtaposing the terms “basic” and “advanced” when referring to skills may give the erroneous impression that “basic” skills are by definition low level skills. Although it is true that a basic command of these skills is a prerequisite for functioning in most areas of life, it will be clear that it is perfectly possibly to possess these skills at a highly advanced level, as any PhD holder in mathematics or linguistics can tell us. The term “basic” seems rather to refer to the fact that these skills in large part lie at the basis of applying and developing skills in other areas, and also that they are essential skills in any environment. In that sense it is better to use the term key skills instead of basic skills.
ICT skills There is a strong case to be made for adding ICT skills to this list of basic skills, given the pervasiveness of ICT in our work and everyday lives. It could be argued that in the future the ability to successfully use ICT will be just as essential for our ability to function in society as the ability to read, write or count. However, it is worth noting that what is commonly referred to as ICT skills cover a range of activities that go from highly specific to almost completely generic. Van Dijk (2005) distinguishes between operational ICT skills (skills directly related to the development and application of ICT hardware and software), ICT information skills (skills related to searching, selecting and processing information on computers, the internet and other ICT media), and strategic ICT skills (skills related to using ICT to achieve specific or more general goals). ICT information skills are further divided by Van Dijk into formal information skills (skills related to the formal structures and forms in which information is made available, such as file or menu structures, hyperlinks and so on) and substantial information skills (skills related to finding, selecting, processing and evaluating substantive information). This classification may be slightly too limited to describe current ICT practices, but if we extend the description of information and strategic skills to include interactivity, communication and transmission as well as retrieval of information, it is still broadly sufficient. Although basic operational ICT skills are necessary skills for everybody, it is clear that advanced levels of such operational ICT skills are only likely to be needed by a relatively small proportion of the population. Some of these skills are so highly specialized that they can only be learned through long periods of intensive training. Such skills are in that respect comparable to other technical and engineering skills, for which specialized programmes of education and training exist. This is different for formal ICT information skills, which are largely non-technical, but nonetheless require a considerable familiarity with the technologies in question. The description of this category should be extended to include practical familiarity with the latest mobile technologies. It could certainly be argued that this class of ICT skills is rapidly becoming a basic skill one needs to master for full participation in the economy and society. Such skills take appreciable time and effort to master. Even comprehending a relatively simple concept such as a “tweet” presupposes a basic knowledge of the structure of the internet, mobile communication technologies, text messaging, and so on, as well as of the social codes, expectations and etiquette surrounding the use of such forms of communication. By contrast, substantial ICT information skills and strategic ICT skills involve a wide range of generic skills such as logical reasoning, deductive reasoning, an ability to distinguish between fundamental points and side issues, evaluating the trustworthiness of different information sources, and so on, that, while in no way specific to ICT, have been rendered more important due to, and arguably also qualitatively changed by, the complex challenges thrown up by the ICT revolution.
Skills and competencies Another distinction that is useful to mention is that between skills and competencies. The more or less definitive work in this area is that done in connection with the DeSeCo (Definition and Selection of Competencies) project, which was initiated by the OECD to provide an overarching framework to international skills assessments. The main results are contained in the report “Key Competencies for a Successful Life and a Well-functioning Society” (Rychen and Salganik, 2003). Emphasising the need for competence assessment rather than a narrow focus on skills, competencies are defined in this project as: “the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context through the mobilization of psychosocial prerequisites (including both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects)” (Rychen and Salganik, 2001, p. 43). The basic difference with the earlier concepts of skills is the holistic nature of the concept of competence. It refers not only to a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills and other prerequisites that need to be in place in order to perform in a competent way, but also to the notion of ‘orchestration’, the ability to use these constituent elements in a meaningful and deliberately arranged way. In that regard, the ‘whole’ that makes up a competence is more than just the ‘sum of its parts’. Skills can therefore best be considered as one of the constituent elements of a competence. The project identifies three categories of key competencies, namely interacting in socially heterogeneous groups, acting autonomously, and using tools (such as literacy, numeracy etc) interactively. The transversal feature cutting across these three categories of key competencies is reflectivity, the ability to make independent judgments and take responsibility associated with higher levels of mental complexity.
21st century skills The concept of “21st century skills” combines aspects of several of the above mentioned dimensions and typologies. Voogd and Parjea Roblin (2010) define 21st century skills in terms of the ability to perform tasks for which it is necessary to interpret complex patterns, in which people cannot be easily replaced by computers (such as may be the case for many routine production processes), but in which the human operators can be supported by information generated by computers. Using examples such as the truck driver who must find the way to deliver goods and the physician diagnosing a patient, the authors make clear that there exists a set of skills which are relevant for a wide range of work. The authors point out that other terms, such as lifelong learning competencies and key skills are often used to refer to basically the same set of skills. Based on an analysis of 32 documents they concluded that skills related to cooperation, communication, ICT literacy, and social and/or cultural skills were common to all models. In addition, most models referred to creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Some models 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 mother language, foreign languages, math and science) and interdisciplinary thinking. It is odd to note that, despite the globalisation, foreign language skills does not appear in all documents as a 21st century skills. This is probably a reflection of the fact that many documents have an Anglo-Saxon origin.
In terms of the dimensions described above, most if not all of these skills can be described as generic, mainly fluid rather than crystallized, and advanced as opposed to basic (with the possible exception of ICT literacy and core school subjects). Although the authors use the Dutch equivalent of the term competencies to refer to these skills, it is not clear whether they are referring to competencies in the holistic manner referred to by Rychen and Salganik (2001, 2003).
Can the existing concepts be combined into a coherent framework? One of the main obstacles to developing a coherent framework for the full range of skills and competencies people may need in their work and daily life is the very different manner in which different scholars approach the subject. Many researchers are mainly driven by practical considerations, namely the need to develop a typology that can be used to describe what is going on in a particular setting, such as a firm or a school class. Such approaches often yield typologies and classifications that are rich in concrete detail, but somewhat lacking in theoretical underpinnings. Other approaches are much more interested in deriving insights relevant for a fundamental understanding of the nature of skills, competences and cognitive function of people, but are too abstract to be directly applicable in a practical setting. Murray et al. (2005) developed a framework that combines insights from both practical and more fundamental research, and that also provides a useful summary of many of the concepts and dimensions described above. This work concentrated on two strands of research: research on what skills are necessary in the workplace, and research on cognitive functioning. From the first strand a list of six skill areas were extracted that seemed to underlie many of the most important skills: Communication (speaking, listening, reading, and writing), Mathematical, Problem Solving, Intrapersonal (motivation, metacognition), Interpersonal (teamwork, leadership) and Technology. From the strand of psychological theory four core domains of intelligence were extracted: practical abilities, crystallised analytical abilities, fluid analytical abilities, and creative abilities (the ability to cope with novelty). As the authors point out, the two strands are not mutually exclusive, but rather represent different aspects of skill. The workplace skills provide the context within which each of the four core intelligence domains are expressed; or, conversely, each category of workplace skill can involve four distinct types of thinking.
The two dimensions can be combined in the following pyramid (Murray et al., 2005). At the lowest level of the pyramid they place basic skills related to numeracy and literacy, as well as to oral communications, learning ability and self-management skills and motor skills. Of these, certainly oral communications skills and learning ability would be classed as 21st century skills and the others as basic skills. These skills are described as fully portable, i.e. generic. According to the scheme, the middle level consists of skills that presuppose the existence of a solid basis of the basic lower level skills, providing a neat illustration of the concept of basic in the sense of “providing a basis for” rather than of “elementary”. This basis can be viewed as a “gateway” that opens access to the broader world in which the higher-level skills must necessarily be learned. For the most part the middle levels skills would fit the description of 21st century skills. These skills are described as largely portable or generic, but are closer in their description to actual concrete work tasks – albeit relevant to a wide range of work settings - than are the basic skills. They include interpersonal skills like teamwork, analytical and problem-solving skills and technical skills like ICT. Finally at the top we find the firm- and job-specific bodies of knowledge that are clearly only portable to a limited extent and as such are specific rather than generic. These skills depend for their development and use on the levels below them, and thus are dependent in part on basic skills and 21st century skills.