IN a recent article for this newspaper, I argued that the technologies powering the fourth industrial revolution are shifting knowledge paradigms in the workplace and Pakistan’s challenge is to “provide the workforce of the 21st century with the skills they will need to manage uncertainty and change”.
It is a universal challenge with common goals: identify the abilities, skills and knowledge that will be important in the 21st-century workplace, integrate them with core academic subjects in the education system and update employees’ skills through workplace learning and retraining.
The need for improving existing skills and learning new ones — to upskill and reskill — is consistent with SDG-4’s commitment to inclusive quality education and the concept of lifelong learning for personal development.
Eight major frameworks for 21st-century skills, involving over 40 countries, international organisations and multi-stakeholder partnerships, have already been developed. Their most striking feature is the number of skills they have in common — even if sometimes similar skills are given different names, categorised differently, and based on datasets collected by different methodologies. Skills are not ranked for relative importance because their value varies for different professions and aside from job-specific technical competencies, the focus is on cross-functional skills that are useful to most occupations.
We need 21st-century skills in the workplace.
Most frameworks emphasise behaviours, attitudes and personality characteristics — traits commonly known as non-cognitive or socioeconomic skills — as opposed to cognitive competencies that are based on a person’s intellectual capacity to master content knowledge — the facts, concepts, theories and principles of specific academic courses.
OECD research evidence from 2015 suggests that non-cognitive skills have a greater impact on academic performance and employment outcomes than cognitive competencies. An earlier study conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2007 found that “habits of mind” such as “analysis, interpretation, precision and accuracy, problem-solving, and reasoning” may be more important than content knowledge for success.
One of the most influential groups in this field is P21 — the Partnership for 21st Century Skills — Washington-based multi-stakeholder coalition that was founded in 2002 with support from several prominent organisations including Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and the US Department of Education.
In 2007, P21 produced a detailed framework identifying “the skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century”. It has since been used as a baseline by other frameworks, widely adopted by thousands of educators and hundreds of schools in the US and abroad, serves as an international benchmark for other similar programmes and identifies 17 skills grouped under four categories:
21st-century themes: Five skills to promote a higher-level understanding of academic content by synthesising core academic subjects and dominant global themes.
Learning and innovation skills: Four proficiencies crucial for dealing with “increasingly complex life and work environments”.
Information, media and ICT skills: Three skills for domain literacy in information technologies.
Life and career skills: Five aptitudes that emphasise “thinking skills, content knowledge, and social and emotional competencies”.
Automation’s capacity to disrupt jobs and skills will remain a long-term influence on labour markets. A January 2017 study by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that although less than five per cent of occupations can be fully automated, specific activities could be automated in almost all occupations, as could some 30 per cent of activities in about 60 per cent of professions. However, as the boundaries of technology expand the automation percentages are likely to rise.
It should concern us that countries with highly rated education systems recognise the inadequacies of their current learning and teaching frameworks for 21st-century workforce needs, while our already inadequate education system regresses further under the widening gap between what is taught and what needs to be taught.
For the first time in human history, the sheer pace and breadth of technological change has challenged us with the opportunity, and the responsibility, to convert the vast volumes of information generated every day into knowledge.
In such times, graduates of the education system and members of the workforce will need to keep up with worldwide trends so they don’t miss out on opportunities that could enhance their lives and careers; and they will need to constantly replenish their existing skills so they don’t fall short when the need arises to use them.
That is the knowledge paradigm of the 21st century.
The writer is founding president of the National Entrepreneurship Working Group.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2017