What about (21st C.) skills & education? 1. Roots and sources

Ben Wilbrink

We have met already some skills, haven’t we? We have skills as contrasted with ‘knowledge the world doesn’t pay for any more’ (Andreas Schleicher on camera 2′ 07″). Some skills are claimed to become especially important in the 21st century, but why would that be? Those 21st century skills supposedly are generic in character, yet psychologist wisdom has it that there are no such generic skills. Wait a minute, those skills are just the cognitive ones, implying there to be another tribe of non-cognitive skills, also dubbed soft skills. Are they also 21st century skills, then? Maybe 21st century personalities, such as grit and mindset? Thinking was a typical 19th century generic skill, to be exercised by the study of Latin, and mathematics of course; until Thorndike showed such miracles to be highly improbable — and Latin disappeared from the American curriculum. Are the 21st century skills of creativity, problem-solving, cooperating and critical thinking just the 21st century resurrections of the 19th century misconception of thinking as some kind of ‘brain muscle’?

Reading the fascinating story of research on expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Pool (2016), makes one wonder how it is possible not to see that deliberate practice in the specific domain is key to achievement, any achievement at all, in that domain. Also, did Andreas Schleicher hit a nerve with his remark on ‘pay’ as a criterion for what belongs in education, and what not? Is there a labor market bias in the educational imperialism of the OECD? If so, let us keep in mind that the labor market shouldn’t be the alpha and omega of education policies, and examine the economist arguments. For me, this is an exciting venue, having done some thinking and research myself on transits from education to labor markets (Wilbrink, 1994), as well as on strategic science policy (Wilbrink & Roos, 1991).

One way to get some answers to these vexing questions is to search for the roots of the idea of 21st century skills. According to Patrick Kyllonen (2016) work by David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane (2003) might have sparked the hype.

  • Related to the concepts of personality and noncognitive skills is the concept 21st-century skills, a buzzword meaning skills that are emerging in importance for success in the 21st-century workplace. The expression itself may owe some of its currency to an influential study by the economists Autor, Levy and Murnane (2003), who showed that since the infusion of information technology into the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s there have been significant changes in the growth and decline of various occupations and lines of work. In particular, in a relatively short period of time routine analytic and manual tasks (e.g., record keeping, repetitive customer service, repetitive assembly) have become increasingly automated and therefore taken over by computers, but nonroutine analytic tasks (e.g., managing others, persuading/selling, legal writing) have not, which has affected the availability of jobs that require the skills associated with these tasks.
    Source: Kyllonen 2016

John Weinberg (2005), in his review of the (2004) book by Levy and Murnane, confirms that the emphasis is on generic skills. Employers who believe these generic skills to exist, will not be overly enthusiast on investing in generic skills development of their employees; job hopping employees will appropriate their investment, their newly acquired generic skills being of value on the labor market also (see Phillips 1987 for a 20th century description of that kind of problem). There is a problem, then: who is going to invest in generic skills? It is a version of the perennial problem: who is going to pay for education and training: student, taxpayer, or employer? (Jacques van Hoof, 1987; Phillips, 1987) Here the definition of ‘generic’ is somewhat loose: a specific skill is a skill that is useful in the employer’s firm only; a generic skill then is every other kind of skill. That is not exactly the psychologist’s definition of what is a generic skill. More on this kind of problem later, in discussing the interesting and especially informative Autor (2015) paper.

There is a direct link from Autor, Levy and Murnane to the OECD branch of education: a Levy (2010) paper titled ‘How technology changes demands for human skills’. Also in the first OECD-report solicited by the Dutch Platform Onderwijs 2032 (task: reform of the Dutch curriculum in elementary and secondary education; advisory report) the first reference is to Autor, Levy & Murnane (is that right, Ben? Yes, it is right, although the reference is to 2013 (not 2003), and not included in the references list 😉 ). It seems that the Autor et al. paper is a key publication in the search for roots of the idea of 21st century skills. Autor et al. are economists, studying labor markets in terms of employment of groups differing in levels of skills, that is: in levels of education. The Autor et al. ‘skills’ need not be anything like 21st century skills of creativity and all the rest of. I expect these economists to be somewhat sloppy in their use of ‘skills’, making their work even more interesting for deconstruction of these 21st century skills. For example, OECD’s Michaela Horvathova (2015) as well as Levy (2010) bend the Autor at al. conclusions in the direction of OECD’s ed reform ideology, substituting ‘21st century skills’ for Autor’s dimension of lower-higher levels of education. Even more key to this venture is the already mentioned Autor (2015) paper. As an appetizer this quote from Levy:

  • This paper places the competencies to be measured by the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in the context of the technological developments which are reshaping the nature of the workplace and work in the 21st century. The largest technological force currently shaping work is the computer. Computers are faster and less expensive than people in performing some workplace tasks and much weaker than people in performing other tasks. On the basis of an understanding of the kinds of work computers do well, it is possible to describe the work that will remain for people in the future, the skills that work requires and the way that computers can assist people in performing that work. The paper argues that a technology-rich workplace requires foundational skills including numeracy and literacy (both to be tested in PIAAC), advanced problem-solving skills or Expert Thinking (similar to the construct of Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments to be tested in PIAAC) and advanced communication skills or Complex Communication (not being tested in PIAAC).
    [source: Levy (2010) abstract]

The above claims by Frank Levy are not supported by the evidence available, in my opinion (I will have to write a blog dedicated solely to these claims by Levy). Not by evidence from psychology (Ericsson & Pool is a fine introduction), not by evidence from Levy’s colleague Autor as given in his 2015 ‘Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.’ Let it suffice, for now (I will blog later on this paper), to sum up Autor’s main points.
– ‘Skills’ in this paper stand for levels of education, not for anything even remotely resembling what others have dubbed to be ‘21st century skills’.
– For the quality of a school, a firm, and even an economy, it is of some importance that levels of skill are somewhat equal (The ‘O-ring argument’). As an example I offer that growing numbers in higher education can be absorbed by the labor market precisely because the labor market evolves and is able to evolve in the direction of more knowledge-intensive jobs by more academic supply of labor. Sounds like a circular argument? See Wilbrink & Dronkers (1993).
– Really fascinating is the contrast between jobs disappearing because of automation (in agriculture in the 20th, because of information technology in the 21st century) and rising employment elsewhere because of rising levels of productivity in the economy. The disappearance of jobs is highly visible, as are its causes, while the resulting rise in employment is not easily seen to ultimately result from the same causes, in particular higher productivity. Also, many jobs will become more productive because ‘automation complements labor’, as Autor expresses it.
– Autor, in this 2015 paper, looks only at the impact information technology has had on jobs and employment (these are different phenomena in his analysis); the question then is: what about other factors, such as outsourcing, the global economy, and the financial sector?

Let me be somewhat more precise on what Autor and his colleagues Levy and Murnane (2004) understand these skills to be; after all, ‘levels of education’ does not explain much. Nothing typically ‘21st century skill’ can be read (yet at Paris OECD headquarters they do) into the following descriptions Levy & Murnane (p. 47-8) give of ‘expert thinking’ and ‘complex communication’. On the contrary, the skills are not special at all, except for their supposedly not being vulnerable for computer take-over. Their chapters 4 (expertise explained as pattern recognition, the authors forgot to explain pattern recognition, however ;-)) and 5 (but why would ‘complex communication’ be anything different from expertise?) elaborate on these skills.

  • Expert thinking: solving problems for which there are no rule-based solutions. Examples include diagnosing the illness of a patient whose symptoms seem strange, creating a good tasting dish from the ingredients that are fresh in the market that morning, repairing an auto that does not run well but that the computer diagnostics indicate has no problem. By definition, these are not tasks that computers can be programmed to do. While computers cannot substitute for humans in these tasks, they can complement humans in performing them by making information more readily available.
  • Complex communication: interacting with humans to acquire information, to explain it, or to persuade others of its implications for action. Examples include a manager motivating the people whose work she supervises, a biology teacher explaining how cells divde, an engineer describing why a new design for a DVD player is an advance over previous designs.
    Source: Levy & Murnane 2004, 47-8

This blog relates different uses of the term ‘skills’ to each other in a schematic way, thereby indicating one possible source for the 21st century skills craze: an over-generalizing interpretation of economist studies on the recent impact of information technology on the labor market. Lots of issues remain to be analyzed and discussed. Because of its (in my eyes) highly informative quality, the Autor (2015) article will be the subject of a following blog in this subseries on skills.
For now, the mystery remains unsolved how it is possible for the educational branch of the OECD to propagate ‘21st century skills’, citing work of Autor, Levy and Murnane (see the literature list) that definitely does not support a ‘21st century skills’ creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking interpretation.


David H. Autor (2015). Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29, #3 Summer, 3-30. pdf

David H. Autor, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane. 2003. The skill content of recent technological change: an empirical exploration. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118, 1279–1333. abstract and the article itself pdf.

Centraal Planbureau (2011). Nederlandse onderwijsprestaties in perspectief. [Dutch education achievements in perspective.] CPB Policy Brief 2011/05. webpage

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

Jacques van Hoof (1987). De abeidsmarkt als arena. [The arena of labor market politics] Dissertation Tilburg University. open access

Patrick C. Kyllonen (2016) Designing tests to measure personal attributes and noncognitive skills. In Suzanne Lane, Mark R. Raymond & Thomas M. Haladyna: Handbook of test development (190-211). Routledge. info on the book and proof of this chapter

Frank Levy (2010). How technology changes demands for human skills. OECD Education Working paper No. 45. pdf

Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane. 2004. The new division of labor: how computers are creating the next job market. Princeton University Press. info on book and free access Ch. 1.

OECD, Michaela Horvathova (2015). Paper #1: Evidence about knowledge and skills for work and learning. pdf

Jack J. Phillips (1987). Recruiting, training and retaining new employees. Managing the transition from college to work. Jossey-Bass.

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

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

John A. Weinberg (2005). review of The new division of labor by Levy and Murnane (2004).

Ben Wilbrink (1994). Arbeidsmarkt en hoger onderwijs: een blijvend problematische relatie. Tijdschrift voor Hoger Onderwijs, 12, 24-32. [in Dutch only] webpage [mechanisms of crowding out]

Ben Wilbrink & Jaap Dronkers (1993). Dilemma’s bij groeiende deelname aan hoger onderwijs. Een verkennende studie. Nr. 17 in de reeks Achtergrondstudies Hoger onderwijs en Wetenschappelijk onderzoek van het Ministerie van Onderwijs en Wetenschappen. ISBN 9034628698. webpage [in Dutch; the literature reviewed is mostly English however]

Ben Wilbrink & Marco Roos (1991). ‘Strategic science policy and organizational structures in the engineering sciences.’ congress paper. Advisory Council on Higher Education (ARHO) & Advisory Council on Science and Technology Policies (AWT), The Hague, The Netherlands) webpage

  • Strategic science policy is not fundamentally different from what strategic education policy should be. The big challenge being: what are feasible positions to consider, as regards the future in one or two decades time? In science, the strong backbone is its (global) disciplinary structure. It would risk disaster for science policy to try to change that (global) disciplinary structure into something more (local) interdisciplinary. The same kind of thing in education: blurring the traditional school disciplines into problem based learning might turn out to result in economic disaster. (CPB, 2011)


Donald Clark (April 4, 2012). Thorndike (1874 – 1949) – experimental rigour, transfer and why Latin is a waste of time. blog

  • Ludwig Haag & Elsbeth Stern (2003). In search of the benefits of learning Latin. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 174-178. pdf

Michael Fordham (22 November 2016). The long road to critical reading: against the ‘quick-fix’. blog

  • Years and years of education are required to get a child to the point where he or she has the knowledge base of an interested generalist; this is sort of what Hirsch means when he talks about ‘cultural literacy’. This is why we have tried for so long to identify ‘quick fixes’ that get around the knowledge problem: critical reading strategies to deploy, generic questions about audience and purpose, and so on. Whilst I am not against encouraging pupils to show a healthy degree of scepticism about what they read, I would nevertheless suggest that the single most helpful thing we can do for our pupils is to teach them as much knowledge as we possibly can.

Ben Wilbrink (21 september 2016). Het is me wat met die vaardigheden van de 21e eeuw. ECBO Nieuwsbrief 21ste-eeuwse vaardigheden. gastcolumn

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order


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