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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

21st century skills for the 19th century

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Twenty-first century skills are probably a term you have heard a lot lately. This term dated from the 1980s and refers to a series of skills different entities (governments, academics, and corporations) have identified as key for success in the current society.

Let me start with an anecdote: During my last job I had to write a grant for a foundation in Qatar so that teachers could use a videogame to build and evaluate metacognitive skills (actually precursors, because the children's age was not enough for evaluating actual metacognitive skills). My boss was eager to get this grant as it implied him getting a big amount of money. It struck me how silly and Victorian all of it was (yes, even when using video games).

I have had some problems with both the term and the way the current society (government, academics, and corporations) is trying to implement them. In this short essay I would like to raise a critic to the concept and the way it is injected and evaluated in different environments. This is by no means conclusive. Here, I am aiming to raise a discussion which, hopefully, will end up building coherence between what we research, what we read, and what we do. Hopefully, also coherence between what academics do in good faith, and what politics, policies, and economics want them to do.

21st century skills are also referred to as soft skills, and are skills that cannot be taught by normal means (i.e. like 'hard skills' such as mathematics or biology), but which require more guidance and training as they are highly contextual and require not a set of 'know' or 'know how' but training and practice in situ, just like what you would require if you want to be good at a sport.

Let's start from the beginning. The 21st century skills is not A theoretical framework, but ONE theoretical framework which makes allusion to 'soft skills'. That is, it is only one of many. Indeed, the EASEL Lab distinguishes 40 different frameworks, more or less using the same skills and values, and aiming for a better workforce and employability.

This is not a problem in itself. If you are working with a specific framework and are faithful to it, there's no problems with your research or interventions. However, problems start emerging when we have so many frameworks for what is supposed to be the same thing.

The first thing I see as a problem is related to the Occam's razor. Psychology, for example, has been studying cognitive skills related to both 'hard and soft skills' for quite some time. Psychological frameworks based on cognitive and social skills are always growing, being falsified, gathering more data, confronted... In other words, their theories and frameworks are being forged under the fire and hammer of the scientific process. That is, Psychological theories and frameworks for studying cognitive skills related to 'soft skills' are not only sturdier, but broader and more explanatory than an arbitrary set of skills proposed by a corporation or government (yes, it is so arbitrary that we have 40 different frameworks making emphasis in different skills).

So, if we have a sturdier and more explanatory model, why are we shifting to the 21st century skills framework? Here is where the second problem arises, and this one is more complex. That is the teleology.

After a century of studies in psychology, learning about learning, and cognitive neuropsychology, and even with the failures of psychometry for IQ measures and its use for eugenics (see for instance Jay Gould, 1996; Rust & Golombok, 2009), employers started to realise that the 'hard skills' as taught in the school were not a warranty of a good working force. At the same time, schools started to realise that being good at 'hard skills' was not a guarantee of being employed in the future.

So maybe that student who was always a slacker was a smooth talker who could do very well as a salesman, while the student that was always at top of the class was so bad at personal skills that could never do it through a work interview.

The 21st century skills frameworks is born from a necessity, it's teleology is to create a better working force. From the learning perspective is to help the students to get employment, from the corporations is to get better workers. But what is it this new generation of workers need to know in order to be good and employable? They need to be critical, know how to solve problems, work in groups, have social skills, be creative, adapt easily to changes (specially those imposed by technology), be productive, amongst many others.

As you might have guessed right now, companies started to shift their interest to more wholesome workers. Those who could bring creative solutions to the company problems without needing to pay extra. Those who could be changed from position or take the job of two other people so they could pay one person to do the work of three. Those who could work with multicultural groups without needing for training in social skills or empathy. In the end, it was easier to adapt the worker production machinery to save (and earn more) money, than improve working conditions and earn less money.

This is not a problem in itself. This is how the current society works, and if a person develops these skills and gets a job and has a nice life, there's really no problem. This is a critical essay on the concept of 21st century skills, not a critical essay on the capitalist society, after all. The 21st century skills framework is well intended, and can certainly be used to explore and exploit people's potential, either for personal, societal, or company gains.

And this takes us to the third problem, the ontology. Although I normally prefer to question ontology before teleology, for the current case explaining the teleology first allow us to understand that the 21st century skills (as a framework) did not emerge from continuous exploration and scientific findings (what emerged from this were psychological understanding of cognitive and social skills, also in learning contexts). The 21st century skills frameworks are an economical and political proposal based on the necessities that some people saw, half a century ago, to be good for economic growth. This also explains why so much money is at stake whenever policies for implementing or evaluating these skills are proposed.

Furthermore, two more problems arise from here. As the companies start requiring more and more these skills, the education system starts struggling. They need to ensure that they are teaching it, but what is worse, they need to ensure the students are learning it. But how can we know that!? These 'soft skills' behave totally different from the 'hard skills' we know.

This takes us to the fourth problem, epistemology. How can we teach 'soft skills'? This has created a whole strand of research and researchers, from psychology to learning sciences, dedicated to understand and devise ideas on how to make this happen. How can we learn to be critical? How can we learn to be creative? Is it possible to learn these things or maybe they are innate or environmental skills? Is it even possible to teach this?

And that's how we come to those 40 different frameworks! Each framework specialises in a set of skills (the one someone deemed more important for X or Y reason) and propose ways to teach it. However, we fall into the old ways. Our education system is not built to 'teach' 'soft skills', it's built to teach 'hard skills', so in most of the cases the way of teaching 'soft skills' falls into the way we teach 'hard skills'. A 19th century system for 21st century skills.

Then comes the fifth problem, evaluation. As we are teaching 'soft skills' in the 'hard skills' way, we need to ensure the students are learning it. So we need grades and scales! We need the students to be critical, but in a controlled way, so that we can use our metrics to evaluate if they are being critical enough and give them a grade. They need to be creative, but correctly, because sticking to the norm is not creative, and going too far is anarchy, and we cannot grade that. Again, a 19th century evaluation system for 21st century non-evaluative skills.

However, the skills can be assessed. This means, people who already have developed these skills in a particular context can see how others are doing in the same context and provide feedback on the skills. Not grade them, or measure them, but simply giving an appraisal.

These last two problems (epistemology and evaluation) can be summarised in one single question. How can we create a standard way to teach and evaluate something that is not standard? The current answer seems to be: Let's make it standard! (yes, just as I was trying to make it standard for the grant from that foundation in Qatar in my last job. See how silly it all sounds now?).

The biggest criticism I have from the fourth and fifth problems is that the same framework (or at least in most of the cases) states that these skills are highly contextual, and sometimes even personal.

Let's exemplify this, take the Communication skills. It doesn't mean to learn how to write and speak correct English (that is a 'hard skill'). Communication means you can get your message across an audience. And this is how the problem starts: Which audience (farmers, school children, academics, politicians...)? Which means are you using (verbally, written, videos, images...)? In which culture (UK, Denmark, Colombia, USA...)? And as you can guess, we cannot teach or train for every single context, let alone evaluating every single case.

We could argue that there's a general skill that we could 'teach' for the student to be able to communicate. But as you can guess, it can be that the student is actually very good at getting a message across by writing, but is not good at speaking. And then we can consider particular personal problems (like the student stutters, or has social anxiety, or is dyslectic) Let's not go towards the realm of the qualia because it gets dark and bottomless.

Before ending the critic, let me summarise the problems:

  1. Occam's Razor: We already have broader, sturdier, and better explanatory (socio-psychological) models for the cognitive skills the different 21st century frameworks try to tackle as if they were new and undiscovered.

  2. Ontology: The 21st century skills are an economical-political construction based on the current state of society requirements for employability, not a scientific advance.

  3. Teleology: The relevance for an individual to develop 21st century skills is so that they are more likely to be employed.

  4. Epistemology: We do not know if we can teach 'actual' soft skills (meaning contextually accurate) with the current system. We do not even know if some of them are even trainable. As 'soft skills' are highly contextual they can only be trained (although not necessarily thought) in situ and via experience.

  5. Evaluation: We cannot really evaluate these skills in a classroom. As 'soft skills' are highly contextual they can only be assessed (although not with a grade or a scale) in situ.

So what to do with all these 21st century skill things? There's definitely no easy answer. However, there's always a starting point. Why not trying to unify frameworks instead of creating different ones, for example? Why not go back to psychological skills and assess our skills based on a framework that is at least more than a century old instead of an arbitrary one based on the necessities of some people?

But what is more important, why not move it away from the 19th century system of teaching? Make it open, make it free, make it contextual, make it non evaluative as it should be. Give the people the chance to explore different skills, let them get to those skills they are better at or improve the ones they like the most.

Stop standardising what cannot be standardised, because either you are missing more your goal the more you try to aim, or you are doing something different to what you think you are doing.

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