Skills for the 21st Century: Implications for Education

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Source: Murray et al. (2005)
Like all of the classifications described above, this diagram is a simplified construct that only roughly corresponds to the real world. Its usefulness lies in its provision of a heuristic framework for thinking about and discussing skills. It contains, at least implicitly, most of the important dimensions referred to in classification systems such as described above, and illustrates how these form an interrelated whole. It illustrates the point that certain kinds of skill are more basic or fundamental, and that other types of skill build upon these basic skills or at least depend upon them in their application. This idea provides us with a useful way of conceiving of, for example, the interrelatedness of specific and generic skills described above. Specific skills consist of highly context-specific or domain-specific knowledge, abilities and so on that often depend upon more basic skills (reading, writing, motor skills) or generic skills (analytical skills, cooperation) for their successful application. The diagram makes clear that all levels and within levels for all categories of skills a further distinction can be drawn between crystallized and fluid abilities, to which the authors add practical and creative abilities to show the full range of skills involved. They themselves illustrate the distinction using as an example linguistic intelligence: reading a short story would invoke crystallized linguistic skills, analyzing the content would bring fluid abilities into play, thinking of a way to apply the insights gained to everyday life would make use of practical abilities, while finally, thinking up new variations to the ending or devising one’s own story along similar lines would be an example of applying creative linguistic skills. Another important feature of the diagram is that it shows that there are comparable and conceptually equivalent pyramids that can be drawn in different life domains, such as those of work, home life and the community at large. Although it is this feature of the diagram that is most artificial – as we noted above, the dividing lines between these domains are becoming increasingly fuzzy, and in any case there will be considerable overlap in the skills used in each domain – it is useful to draw this conceptual distinction, because it draws our attention to the fact that the skills required of citizens in today’s complex world need to form a “complete package” as it were in all three of these domains.
The usefulness of such a representation is in our view twofold. First, it encourages us to look at skills not as isolated entities but as things that are developed and applied in combination with and in relation to other skills. This comes close to a practical application of the ideas developed in a highly abstract manner by the DeSeCo group and helps us understand where typical 21st century skills fit in the overall picture in relation to more basic skills on the one hand and specific skills on the other. Secondly, at the same time it alerts us to the fact that precisely when it comes to this interconnectedness and interdependence between a wide range of skills, there are still large gaps in our knowledge. Particularly in terms of insights into skill development in education, skills are sometimes conceived of too simplistically as bundles of cognitive potential that can be learned by anybody in any order at any time in their life, thus reducing the choices confronting education as simply one of deciding which skills to devote educational resources to. As we will argue below, the challenge facing education is far more complex than this.

4. How well does Dutch education prepare for the skills that are needed in the 21st century?

In Section 2 we have described how the world is changing and what this implies for the skill needs of the population. In this section we present an overview of what we know about the extent to which the Dutch educational system supplies these skills. Is the Dutch system currently supplying the skills that the modern knowledge economy requires?
Basic skills
A recent review on the quality of Dutch education (Scheerens, Luyten and Van Raven, 2010) paints a rather positive picture when it comes to basic skills. Using international data on math, language and science tests for students from primary and secondary education (TIMMS, PIRLS and PISA), Luyten (2010) shows that according to most ranking systems the Netherlands performs quite well, especially in math. They rank among the top 5 when only European countries are included and among the top 10 when all countries are included. These results are confirmed when we look at the data for the adult population IALS and ALL. There are however two caveats.
The first is that average scores tell only part of the story. It is also important to know how countries perform across different parts of the skills distribution. It turns out that the Netherlands’ high ranking is largely due to its having very good scores in the lower part of the skills distribution. However, it scores less well when we look at – say – the top 5% of the skills distribution. This is well illustrated by the results shown in Figure 5 from the ALL survey. For the lowest 5% and 25% of the skills distribution, the Netherlands has the highest scores, together with Norway. But for the top 5% the Netherlands shifts more towards the middle. This confirms the earlier findings by Minne et al. (2007) that the Netherlands is doing less well in developing top talent. According to this study, the Netherlands drops out of the top ten when we look at the performance of the 99th percentile, the top 1% of the students.
Figure 5 Literacy scores across the skills distribution, 16-65 year olds

Source: ALL, own computations

The second caveat is that there are indications of a downward trend in the test results for the Netherlands over time, at least compared to other countries. Not all of these differences are statistically significant, but most point in the same direction: a negative trend in the scores for math, science and reading, especially when a longer time period is taken into account.
Figure 6 Change in literacy scores for 16-25 year olds 1994-2008

Source: IALS and ALL, own computations
This negative trend is also visible when we compare the recent results for the Netherlands from the ALL survey (held in 2008) with the comparable results from the earlier IALS survey (held in 1994). Between 1994 and 2008 the average score on document literacy for the total adult population decreased slightly, from 286.9 to 284.1. But the really striking thing is that this shift was much stronger for the younger age group of 16-25 year olds. The percentage of young people in the lowest literacy levels (levels 1 and 2) rose from 23.4% in 1994 to 27.7% in 2008 (see Figure 6).
21st century skills
All the results above relate to the more traditional basic skills: literacy, numeracy and science. But how does the Netherlands perform in other areas like the 21st century skills? In general the assessments in these areas are scarcer or still ‘under construction’. For problem-solving, the ALL data show that the Netherlands ranks highest of all eight participating countries. This domain (problem solving in technology-rich environments) is now being further developed in PIAAC, and we will have to wait for the results of that survey (to be conducted in 2012) to see whether the Netherlands can keep this high rank when more countries are involved.
In the area of civic competences the results are less positive. Based on the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), Schultz et al. (2010) conclude that only one out of four Dutch students has a good understanding of what active citizenship implies. This is quite low compared to e.g. Finland and Denmark where more than half of the students has a good understanding. Around 15% of the Dutch students lack the necessary knowledge and skills to function well as active citizens and this percentage is higher than in most European countries.
Up to now no internationally comparable surveys have been conducted that assess ICT literacy. The IEA has planned a survey in this area to be carried out in 2013 (the International Computer and Information Literacy Study ICILS). Nevertheless there is some information available for the Netherlands. Van Deursen (2010) has looked at the level of internet skills for a representative sample of the Dutch adult population (18-80 year-olds). He shows that young people are better than older people in terms of medium-related internet skills (the operational and formal skills needed to use the internet) but do not perform better in terms of content-related skills, that is the skills needed to find and evaluate information and to strategically use it for their own purposes. The survey casts some doubt on the generally held belief that young people are fully equipped with the necessary ICT skills and that there is no need to develop this further in education. This may be true for medium-related ICT skills but does not necessarily hold for content-related ICT skills.
It has proven much more difficult to develop international assessments in the softer 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, learning to learn, teamwork skills, communication skills, planning skills etc. (Murray, 2005). The evidence here is largely based on self-assessments which are more prone to cultural bias (Allen and Van der Velden, 2005) and therefore more difficult to compare across countries or subgroups. However they can still be useful for comparisons within well-defined groups over time, as there is no a-priori reason to believe that the unobserved factors driving these results change as well. A recent evaluation by Coenen, Meng and Van der Velden (2011) shows that in the academic tracks of Dutch secondary education (HAVO and VWO), self-regulation, collecting and processing new information and taking initiatives have clearly improved between 1998 and 2003. In other areas like teamwork, creativity and communication skills the results are more mixed, although most show a positive development over time.
Educational attainment
As described above, the Netherlands performs rather well when it comes to achievement as measured in large-scale assessments of the so-called basic skills, but how does it compare with other countries when we look at educational attainment? The percentage of 20-24 year-olds with at least upper secondary education was 76.2% in 2008 which is lower than the EU average of 78.5% and some 10-12% lower than the percentages in e.g. Finland and Sweden (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, 2010). But this result is partly due to the differences between educational systems in the timing of programs at the upper secondary level. The percentage of 30-34 year-olds with a tertiary education degree is 9%-points higher than the EU average: 40.2% versus 31.1%. However, some countries score higher, like Denmark and Finland with respectively 46.3% and 45.7%, and the Netherlands is still remote from the national target of 46% by 2020.
The percentage of early school-leavers among 18-24 year olds has decreased significantly from 15.5% in 2000 to 11.4% in 2008. This overall percentage is still far remote from the objective of 8% that was set for 2010. Still, the Netherlands performs better than the EU average, which is 14.9%. And some of the countries that previously performed much better on this indicator (Denmark, Sweden) did not improve over time and are stuck at the same percentage of 11.5 and 11.1% respectively. This may indicate that further improvement is quite difficult to realize.

Summing up, the overall picture is quite good. The Netherlands ranks high in the assessment of basic skills and has been quite successful in decreasing the percentage of early school-leavers. There are also indications that a number of the so-called 21st century skills have successfully been implemented in Dutch secondary education.
An important area where improvements could be made is by a further increase in the enrollment in higher education. Regarding the basic skills a point of attention is the possible downward trend that has been observed. If this trend continues it could have major implications for the provision of relevant basic skills. Another area that deserves attention is the relatively low ranking of the Netherlands in the area of civics. As civics education is quite differently organized in different countries, it may be too soon to draw firm conclusions, but at least we need to give it some thought. Furthermore, there are indications that young people do not possess the content-related ICT skills needed to successfully use the possibilities that internet offers them. Finally, more research is needed that can shed light on how we are doing in terms of other 21st century skills. We can also note that, for fairly obvious reasons, there is little internationally comparable data on how the Netherlands performs in terms of specific skills.

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