21st century skills in Dutch ‘ed reform 2032’. OECD in denial of psychological research?

Ben Wilbrink

What is going on here (in Holland)?

‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further). The claim by the Platform and its chair that the report is based on sound science has been challenged by many, among them math teacher Karin den Heijer in a high profile TV discussion (in Dutch) with Paul Schnabel. The purpose of this blog series is to check on the committee’s claim of scientific support. For starters it is to be established what the committee’s take is on important themes 1) knowledge, 2) 21st century skills, and 3) personal development.
This blog is about the committee’s take on 21st century skills, as well as the contrasting position of cognitive psychology on the topic of these generic skills. This blog will not attempt any further critical analysis yet, that is for future blogs to do. The blog will make it clear that the position of the Platform on 21st century skills is copied from that of the OECD, that the OECD position does not square with insights from experimental psychology that there are no such things as a generic skills. This blog therefore will end with the question: is the OECD’s position wrong, or what?

interdisciplinary skills

The remarkable fact is that the Report avoids using the standard terminology ‘21st century skills’, instead calling them ‘interdisciplinary skills’ or avoiding any labels at all. So, be aware of ‘skills’ that are meant to be generic. Of course, ‘interdisciplinary’ is not exactly what psychologists call ‘generic’. This idiosyncratic terminology introduced by the Platform will obstruct a clear debate on the Platform proposals. The 21st century skills are introduced in one place in the report (pp 42-43), referring to only one source—OECD reports solicited by the Platform.

  • interdisciplinary skills
    The Platform believes that certain interdisciplinary skills must also be included in the core curriculum for all students. Today’s society and employment market call for skills which are not unique to any particular discipline but which support lifelong learning and ongoing personal development. Students must acquire these skills if they are to function effectively in society. [OECD 2015a, b. c. d] The Platform has identified five specific skills to which attention should be devoted:

    1. Learning skills Students should develop strategies which will enable them to acquire new knowledge and skills throughout their lives. ( .. )

    2. Creativity Students should be encouraged to devise innovative new solutions to existing problems. ( .. )

    3. Critical thinking Students will learn to form, express and defend their personal opinions. ( .. )

    4. Problem-solving ability Students will learn to identify and define problems whereupon they can implement a structured plan to arrive at solutions. ( .. )

    5. Cooperation Students will develop the ability to work alongside others in pursuit of a common goal. ( .. )

    [Report, pp 42-43]

Throughout the Report these generic skills get mentioned without much in the way of explanation or justification. That is quite remarkable, evidently the Platform judges these generic skills not to be in need of much further explanation. Except this quote (p. 43) (meaning exactly what?):

  • The Platform wishes to note that the above skills are not independent competences which can be learned in isolation. They are only meaningful when linked to concrete subject matter knowledge.

Let us therefore look into the OECD reports, f.e. from the Conclusion of report #1 the following quote

  • An increased number of occupations in the future will involve complex problem solving and creative thinking and require complex social interactions. Facing the challenges of the 21st century requires deliberate effort to cultivate in students these skills and competencies to respond to the needs of the labour market. One of the questions education systems will need to debate in order to prepare students for the future, is whether they should consider removal of obsolete topics to make room for new, relevant and interdisciplinary areas of knowledge combined with increased focus on teaching higher-order thinking, social and emotional skills and metacognition. Cognitive skills matter, but higher-order thinking skills, social and emotional skills and metacognition are just as important and therefore all of them need to be fostered for individuals and societies to prosper.

The OECD position papers are very rich in data and references, it should definitely be possible to get a handle on the OECD position that 21st century skills, generic skills, are crucial for Western economies to survive in global markets. Do they exist, then, these generic skills?

psychology: generic skills (the 21st century ones) do not exist

The OECD claims generic skills to be important as hell, the Platform follows the OECD, while psychology claims generic skills to be non-existent. If both parties here claim to have science on their side, and they do, it must be a fascinating exercise to sort this out. Future blogs will try to do so. For now, let it suffice to present a few representative quotes on the generic skills conundrum, arising from rather different lines of experimental psychological research. At the very least, these quotes show any claims of generic skills to be scientifically controversial, the Platform as well as the OECD ought to have warned that this controversy exists. Didn’t they know their psychology?

General psychological expertise has it as follows:

  • Designing education to meet the emerging needs of a knowledge society is a priority of education systems worldwide. At this writing, it appears that these efforts are dominated by test-driven ‘21st-century skills’ approaches, often sponsored by major corporations. In recent months, however, we have found education officials in widely separated jurisdictions resonating to the idea of ‘beyond 21st-century skills.’ Although no one is likely to question the value of creativity, problem solving, collaborativeness, and other items that are central 21st-century skills, ‘21st-century skills’ enthousiasts tend to gloss over serious questions of teachability, transfer of learning, and test validity. Experienced educators recognize that tacking the word ‘skill’ onto a desirable human trait does not make it teachable, and so they are likely to find expressions like ‘empathy skills’ ludicrous. Furthermore, to educators who have been in the business for enough years, the skills movement evokes a ‘been there, done that’ reaction. It is not much different from ‘higher order thinking skills’ and related movements that have come and gone over the past six decades.
    Scardamalia & Bereiter (2014) pdf of earlier 2006 chapter version]

Already about 1900 experimental research showed beliefs in generic thinking skills (in 19th century faculty psychology) to be false. Thorndike’s work had an big impact on the place of Latin in US curricula: why stick to it if it does not teach any thinking skills, except Latin itself? Thorndike explains also, in his Educational Psychology, the origins of misconceptions of the acquisition of generic skills. Quite amusing (via link in this quote). Edward Thorndike, by the way, was an educational psychologist who really revolutionized the American curriculum in the first quarter of the 20th century.

  • One of the quarrels of the educational theorists concerns the extent to which special forms of training improve the general capacities of the mind. Does the study of Latin or of mathematics improve one’s general reasoning powers? Does laboratory work in science train the power of observation for all sorts of facts? Does matching colored sticks educate the senses for all sorts of discriminations ?
    Thorndike 1923

The next quote is from the research by (among others) Anders Ericsson on what it takes to become an expert, especially a top expert. Inevitably, being aware of the results of experimental psychology in general, this line of psychological research on the acquisition of expertise confirms Thorndike’s results.

  • . . . a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or for people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon. Of course, some people do become overall memory experts or athletes in a number of sports or doctors with a general set of skills, but they do so by training in a number of different areas. Ericsson & Pool (2016) p. 60

Working from cognitive load theory and evolutionary psychology, again generic skills are shown to be elusive. With an evolutionary twist:

  • Abstract Domain-general cognitive knowledge has frequently been used to explain skill when domain-specific knowledge held in long-term memory may provide a better explanation. An emphasis on domain-general knowledge may be misplaced if domainspecific knowledge is the primary factor driving acquired intellectual skills. We trace the long history of attempts to explain human cognition by placing a primary emphasis on domain-general skills with a reduced emphasis on domain-specific knowledge and indicate how otherwise unintelligible data can be easily explained by assumptions concerning the primacy of domain-specific knowledge. That primacy can be explained by aspects of evolutionary educational psychology. Once the importance of domain-specific knowledge is accepted, instructional design theories and processes are transformed.
    Tricot & Sweller (2014) concept version

At last, a quote connecting the creative event with solid knowledge. From the best book available on the kind of cognition that is implied in creative solutions and in true problem-solving, called ‘non-monotonic change’ by the author:

  • When we list the factors that affect the probability of non-monotonic change, its low probability of occurrence ceases to be mysterious: Minds are programmed by evolution to push forward before drawing back to leap, the relevant cognitive processes are not under voluntary control and the occurrence of a change requires the simultaneous occurrence of multiple conditions. The latter may be hindered or facilitated by cognitive parameters like working memory capacity and retrieval thresholds. Even with favorable values on the architectural parameters, non-monotonic changes are unlikely unless a person undertakes projects that require such changes, works hard at them, engages in extensive preparations, subjects himself to varied experiences and exposes himself to negative feedback. Taken together, these factors explain why nonmonotonic change is difficult even in the presence of cognitive mechanisms that make such changes possible. Alternative theories of deep learning are no doubt possible, but any satisfactory theory must explicate this dialectic between difficulty and possibility.
    Ohlsson, 2011, p. 388. The closing words of the book.

Is the OECD’s position wrong, or what? That is the question to be answered in blogs to follow. What I suspect to be the case: OECD claims regard issues inherently psychological, yet not rooted in the science we call psychology.


John Dewey (1910). How we think. D. C. Heath. archive.org [Hirsch note 37] [Dover editie als eBook in KB]

  • preface
    OUR schools are troubled with a multiplication of studies, each in turn having its own multiplication of materials and principles. Our teachers find their tasks made heavier in that they have come to deal with pupils individually and not merely in mass. Unless these steps in advance are to end in distraction, some clue of unity, some principle that makes for simplification, must be found. This book represents the conviction that the needed steadying and centralizing factor is found in adopting as the end of endeavor that attitude of mind, that habit of thought, which we call scientific. This scientific attitude of mind might, conceivably, be quite irrelevant to teaching children and youth. But this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case ; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind. If these pages assist any to appreciate this kinship and to consider seriously how its recognition in educational practice would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste, the book will amply have served its purpose.
    [p. iii]

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016). Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. info

David F. Feldon (2006). The implications of research on expertise for curriculum and pedagogy. Educ Psychol Rev. pdf

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press. info, and especially its free access prologue pdf [missing the 40 footnotes, reason to mention most references in this blog, and extending them with links and other publications of interest]

  • Fascinating is to learn from Hirsch that the idea of ‘21st century skills’ can be traced back to Dewey (1910): he needed the skills idea to justify the inevitable fragmentation of the progressivist curriculum: knowledge is not important in itself, only for teaching generic skills of problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Addie Johnson & Robert W. Proctor (2016). Skill acquisition & training. Achieving expertise in simple and complex tasks. Routledge. info

  • Just take a look at its content listing. Remark there is no mention of ‘21st century skills’, ‘soft skills’, or ‘generic skills’. Indeed, skills are domain specific everywhere. However, there is a section on problem-solving skill. Guess what? It is domain-specific, heavily contingent on long term memory knowledge. Many topics regularly in discussion on Twitter and in blogs on social media are treated here in a professional manner, yet accessible.

Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (OCW) Skills Platform (november 2016). Skills voor de toekomst: een onderzoeksagenda. download

  • This one deserves a blog of its own. Terrible.

OECD, Michaela Horvathova (2015). Paper #1: Evidence about knowledge and skills for work and learning. pdf
OECD position papers for Platform Onderwijs 2032 webpage

Stellan Ohlsson (2011). Deep Learning: How the Mind Overrides Experience. Cambridge University Press. info

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel T. Willingham (2009). 21st-Century Skills. The Challenges Ahead. Educational Leadership 67(1), pp. 16–21. article

Marlene Scardamalia & Carl Bereiter (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). Cambridge University Press. concept

Mark K. Singley & John R. Anderson (1989). The transfer of cognitive skill. Harvard University Press. isbn 0674903404

  • The theory we present here can be viewed as a resurrection of Thorndike’s theory of identical elements, with production rules and their declarative precursors taking on the role of the elements. p. vi

Skills-platform (1 november 2016). Skills voor de toekomst: een onderzoeksagenda. Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (OCW) ophalen

Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. archive.
Edward L. Thorndike & Robert S. Woodworth (1901). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. First published in Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.
webpage 1webpage 2webpage 3

André Tricot & John Sweller (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review preview & concept

Daniel Willingham (2007). Critical thinking, why is it so hard to teach? American Educator, summer 2007, 8-19. pdf

blogosphere & other

Greg Ashman (July 4, 2016). Assessment distorts the curriculum and it’s about to get worse. blog

Dirk van Damme (Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD) (April 11, 2017). Does the world need people who understand problems, or who can solve them? blog

  • The OECD’s confused (in the sense of cognitive psychology) vision on problem solving as a generic skill. Published a few days before Dutch Parliament distanced itself from these ‘21st century skills’.

Tomi Dufva & Mikko Dufva (2016). Metaphors of code – Structuring and broadening the discussion on teaching children to code. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 22, 97-110.
free access

Mirjam Neelen and Paul A. Kirschner (November 1, 2016). 21st century skills don’t exist. So why do we need them? blog

Andrew Russell & Lee Vinsel (7 April 2016). The maintainers. Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more. blog

Andreas Schleicher (2016). The case for 21st-century learning. OECD blog

  • Just plain psychological obscurantism by the PISA boss.

John Sweller (8 September 2017) Tes talks to . . . John Sweller. free article

  • [lead] The godfather of cognitive load theory writes that teachers need to recognise the working memory limits of their students and that this dictates that problem-solving, inquiry-based learning and other common pedagogies have no place in the classroom.

Marjan Vermeulen & Emmy Vrieling (2017). 21e-eeuwse vaardigheden: achtergronden en onderwijsimplicaties in zeventien vragen en antwoorden. Marjan Vermeulen & Emmy Vrieling (2017). pdf

  • Onverholen onderwijsideologie in universitair jasje. Wanneer neemt de academische wereld deze misstand eens serieus? Dat de ideologie niet is verstopt, maar openlijk wordt beleden (‘het nieuwe leren’ en zijn hedendaagse varianten, valt dan weer te prijzen bij deze auteurs. Maar zet ook eens de volgende stap, want dit soort ideologie hoort niet de academie thuis. Nergens, trouwens.

Daniel T. Willingham (2015). Do Students Remember What They Learn in School? Ask the Cognitive Scientist blog

Ben Wilbrink (accessed November 2016). 21st century skills: we can write and talk about them; they do not exist otherwise. webpage

  • Literature base. ‘21st century skills are like fire without fuel. A fantasy.’

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order


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