Skills, Knowledge and Competencies – What, Why and How?

As the world gets more complex, students will need to know more and be able to do more in order to succeed. But are schooling systems preparing students with the skills they really need?

Schooling systems the world over are dominated by the pursuit of academic qualifications – which was fine in the Industrial era, but is no longer sufficient in the Knowledge era.  

The dilemma for schools now, according to the OECD, is that the skills and knowledge that are easiest to teach are the easiest to outsource and offshore. The graph below, cited by Prof. Andres Schleicher from OECD, shows where jobs have grown and declined since the 1960s:

As automation has grown, work with routine elements have fallen. Manipulating non-complex knowledge is something that computers can do better than humans, hence the fall in routine cognative work.  In a global economy, the drive for cost effectiveness will ensure that all work that can be digitised, automated or outsourced, will be digitised, automated or outsourced.  So, we need to ask ourselves what key competencies education systems need to provide for young people to succeed, and how can schooling better align with these needs?

The winners in a globalised economy are those who can engage in expert thinking (up 8%) and complex communication (up almost 14%).  A strong foundation of subject specific knowledge will always have significant value, but it is no longer enough.

Let’s be clear though—academia has played a massive role in human achievement.  The scientific, technological, medical, financial and social revolutions that have led us to the prosperity that so many of us enjoy today owe a huge debt to “academic” thinking, research, discipline and rigour.  For large numbers of students, a university education is a natural choice.  On the other hand, for many students a university degree has no relevance or appeal. It’s quite possible for people to make valuable contributions to society without needing formal academic thinking skills or qualifications, so the question is—”to what extent is academia relevant to schooling today?”

Most involved in education would argue that there continues to be a strong role for academia, but increasingly people are realising that it’s not the only focus that a schooling system should have.  Yes, of course, there is knowledge, skills and understanding based on academic principles that are critical for successful induction into society, preparation for the world of work, and personal formation—but academic principles aren’t the only principles on which these capacities are built.

Whilst it’s clear to see that a modern curriculum needs to go beyond its grounding in academic discipline, the reality for most schools is that they are judged by last year’s final examination performance or their academic test scores. But it simply has to be possible to go beyond just delivering an academic curriculum if students are to be adequately equipped for what lies ahead. One approach is to combine Academic and Vocational qualifications with 21st Century Skills:

There has been a lot of excitement about 21st Century Skills recently, but what exactly are they? In a nutshell, 21st Century Skills combine a range of competencies, skills and knowledge required for the modern world. Below are selected highlights from the 21st Century Skills Assessment work being done by University of Melbourne, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft.

21st Century Skills can be broken down into 4 categories:


 Ways of thinking

These skills emphasize the upper-end of thinking skills, but also incorporate more straightforward skills such as recall, and drawing inferences. A major characteristic of these skills is that they require great focus and reflection.

Ways of working

In business we are witnessing a rapid shift in the way people work.  Outsourcing services across national and continental borders is just one example.  Another is having team members collaborate over distances on the same projects. To support these types of work scenarios, excellent communication and collaboration skills are essential.  Communication must be rapid, concise and cognizant of cultural differences.

People working in modern organisations also need to demonstrate:


Schools need to nurture individuals who are not only able apply subject matter knowledge, but have the ability and motivation to expand their horizons, and transfer and apply skills and knowledge in new settings.  

Editing and Communicating

With the explosion in the amount of information available through the internet, people who can meaningfully sort and filter information and explain specialised content will become increasingly important. This needs to be reflected in modern assessments.

Creativity and Synthesis

Creativity and innovation enabled through strong communication and collaboration skills are what will give individuals and nations the competitive edge.  In today’s workplace, value is created by synthesising unrelated pieces of data and information.

Collaboration and Orchestration

With exponentially increasing complexity in the global marketplace, the more organisations need more sophisticated co-ordination and management. Valuable skills and attributes are interpersonal skills, teamwork and leadership. The problem is that in the vast majority of schools, students learn individually and at the end of the school year their individual achievement is certified.  In the interdependent world of work, collaboration is a core skill.  In assessments at school, collaboration is usually considered cheating. 

Tools for working

“Tools for working” are about information and ICT literacy and skills—critical skills given that work is increasingly represented electronically.  Just to paint a picture of how important it is to be truly literate in the use of ICT, consider that it is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.  In one year more unique information will be generated this year than in the previous 5,000 years.  Students must develop the skills to access and evaluate new information efficiently so that they can effectively utilize all that is available and relevant to their tasks at hand. One of the ways they will capitalise on this information explosion is through skilled use of ICT.

Living in the world

Essentially people must learn to live not only in their town or country but also in the world in its entirety.  As more and more people individually move in the 21st Century to connect and collaborate, it is even more important that they understand all the aspects of citizenship.  It is not enough to assume that what goes on in your own country is how it is or should be all over the globe.

Assessing 21st Century Skills

Students claiming to possess 21st Century Skills will need to demonstrate that they can integrate, synthesize and creatively apply content knowledge in novel situations.  21st Century Skills Assessments must therefore ask students to apply content knowledge to critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical tasks throughout their education.

Successful learning is as much about the process as it is about facts and figures, so another aim of assessing 21st Century Skills is to make students’ thinking visible.  The assessments should provide insights into students’ understandings and the conceptual strategies a student uses to solve a problem.

In the figure below, as one moves from knowledge towards demonstrations of skills, attitudes, values, the need for more open-ended and extended opportunities to demonstrate abilities increases. The most complex demonstrations of competencies—e.g. unstructured inquiry, problem solving, learning to learn, creativity, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and personal and social responsibility—must be examined in contexts that allow tackling larger-scale tasks over a longer period of time with more performance-based demonstrations.


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