Skills and competencies for knowmadic workers

Skills and competencies for knowmadic workers

by Cristóbal Cobo

Without better curriculum, better teaching, and better tests, the emphasis on “21st-century skills” will be superficial. (Rotherham and Willingham 2010)


In 2011, John Moravec and I released a book entitled Invisible learning (originally published in Spanish as Aprendizaje invisible). The book was openly accessible under a Creative Commons license, and it was downloaded thousands of times by people from all around the world. The volume contributed to a worldwide debate about the challenges faced by education today. We, as authors, were lucky enough to give talks in dozens of universities (among other institutions) in numerous countries around the world. This was an extraordinary opportunity to discuss and expand on many of the topics we analyzed in the book, as people from different cultures and nationalities, ages and experiences, shared their views on how to think critically and creatively about education. The chapter that follows is not a summary of Aprendizaje invisible, but an expanded compilation of the discussions and ideas that arose following its publication. I thereby hope to share ideas that can contribute towards an expanded understanding of contemporary education.

Provision of a cross-cutting education that enables citizens to flexibly and proactively respond to change overtime from a lifelong learning society, as Redecker et al. (2010, pp. 28–30) have suggested, is one of the challenges that educational systems need to address. However, as Richard Rowe from the Open Learning Exchange International once told me, the problem lies not only in identifying why education fails, but also in how to design successful solutions. Instead of outlining a recipe of solutions for education (which lies far beyond my scope) the approach offered here will be to enquire, explore and outline the conditions required to foster critical skills such as problem-solving, reflection, creativity, critical thinking, learning to learn, risk-taking, collaboration, and entrepreneurship. In this chapter, I discuss five trends that can be used to explore the conditions necessary to ensure “multi-skilled profiles” and “multi-contextual learning practices” for an expanded understanding of education. These five trends can be summarized as follows:

  1. The mismatch between formal education and the challenges of an innovation-based society (informal and flexible learning approaches);
  2. The shift from what we learn to how we learn (lifelong, self-learning, and learning to learn);
  3. The fluctuating relationship between digital technologies and content (ICT and critical thinking skills and new literacies);
  4. The changing conceptions of space-time and a lifelong learning environment (which is rarely time or context dependent); and,
  5. The development of soft skills (global, tacit, and social).

Before I analyze some of the strategic conditions that are necessary to foster the development of the above key skills, I provide two relevant definitions elaborated by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Tissot, 2004) and published in the European multilingual glossary:

Skill: “the knowledge and experience needed to perform a specific task or job.”

Competence: the “ability to apply knowledge, know-how and skills in a habitual or changing situation.”

This differentiation and complementarity is important to consider. While this chapter devotes particular attention to the development of skills, it also addresses the application of skills in changing situations and through the combination of disciplines.

The mismatch between formal education and the challenges of an innovation-based society

In their book, The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane (2004) analyze the most universally needed competencies in a modern economy in a longitudinal study spanning the period of 1960 to 2000. They make reference to the fact that “declining portions of the labor force are engaged in jobs that consist primarily of routine cognitive work and routine manual labor—the types of tasks that are easiest to program computers to do. Growing proportions of the nation’s labor force are engaged in jobs that emphasize expert thinking or complex communication—tasks that computers cannot do” (Levy & Murnane, 2004, pp. 53–54). They also explain the importance of the “expert thinking” profile of workers who are capable of working in a changing environment using skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, and problem-solving.

It is possible that Levy and Murnane’s vision of the decline of “routine cognitive work” and “routine manual labor” will not be particularly surprising to contemporary readers. There is a large body of academic literature that analyzes the changing structure of the world of work, and the necessity of new skills and qualifications to support the knowledge economy. For instance, Jimenez (2006) notes that that this concern has existed in the United States for decades: “Job tasks requiring problem-solving and communication skills have grown steadily since the 1970s in the United States while manual and routine cognitive tasks have declined” (p. 72). Attention has therefore been focused on the novelty of this changing nature of worker profiles, rather than on efforts to make these changes happen.

Economics and education scholars have been largely studying and exploring how to better match the needs of employers with suitable graduate profiles. One of the main complexities of this match (or mismatch) between the worlds of work and education is the convergence of various elements, including the performance of universities and training institutions, the changing requirements of the productive sector, mutual coordination between training and the labor sector, and differing levels of employability and competitiveness between different countries and regions worldwide. In other words, a better understanding of the changing trends in division of labor as envisioned by Levy and Murnane entails an interplay between – and integration of – at least the higher education sector, the production sector, and public policy frameworks.

This is not a new concern, and it is not limited to any specific nation. Many classic works have explained and illustrated why it is important to explore a more appropriate design of educational systems, ones that better suit the demands of the changing, global economy. A report that can be considered a “classic” in this respect is A Nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform (Gardner et al. 1983), which, in the early 1980s, compared the performance of U.S. students and the U.S. educational system with that of other industrialized nations. In their work, considered a landmark event in modern U.S. educational history, Gardner and his colleagues highlighted the importance of stimulating skills such as comprehending, interpreting, evaluating, and using what is read; applying scientific knowledge to everyday life; understanding the computer as an information, computation, and communication device; and computational and problem solving skills, science, social studies, foreign language, and the arts.

However, as might be suspected, this is not the end of the story. Today, and still with reference to the U.S. educational context, various initiatives have rebranded the suggestions of Gardner et al. (1983) as “21st century skills.” The “Partnership for 21st Century Skills” (P21) is an example of a national concern about skills development, but which stresses the importance of modern technologies in disseminating “new” capabilities within the education sector. The Partnership is self-defined as a “national organization that advocates for 21st century readiness for every student [as] the United States continues to compete in a global economy that demands innovation,” and explains the importance of transforming education, developing students’ educational skills such as creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, and information, media and technology skills.

It is interesting to note the similarities between the approach taken by the A nation at risk report (1983) and what is promoted by the P21 report (2012) as a way of “transforming” education, despite the almost 30 years that separate the two proposals. With very little difference between them, both U.S. initiatives push for an education that provides more relevance to a whole “new” set of skills that students will need. Before drawing any conclusions about the unchanged rhetoric surrounding these “new” skills, it is reasonable to ask: What is missed? Where is the novelty in this “skills approach”? In other words, what happened in the U.S. educational institutions (and other regions of the world) during the last three decades? Is this just a matter of describing more appropriate skills, or are deeper changes required? Will the Americans (or others) be rediscovering the same problems in three decades’ time?

When the phenomenon of the education-jobs mismatch is discussed, it is important to identify and differentiate between two kind of incompatibilities: a skills mismatch and a qualifications mismatch. An OECD (2011) report suggests the following definitions to illustrate the difference between these concepts:

  • Skills mismatch: Discrepancy between the skills – both specific and general – possessed by a worker and the skills required by their job.
  • Qualifications mismatch: Discrepancy between the highest qualifications held by a worker and the qualifications required by their job.

The same OECD study explains that most of the literature has so far focused on qualification levels. Too few studies have investigated the role played by field of study and other factors in explaining qualification mismatches, or explored underlying skill discrepancies. That is why I present here an analysis that discusses the importance of these “skills mismatches” with special relevance of other contextual variables. In other words, I discuss how to better stimulate the development of multi-skilled profiles in the coming generation of professionals and how to better understand the importance of those multi-contextual learning practices that foster the creation of new capacities and proficiencies.

Between April and June of 2010, the Generation Europe Foundation conducted paper surveys and online interviews with young people in the EU, who were between the ages of 18 and 30. 7,062 responses were received: 95% were aged 18-30, 62% were female and 38% male (Generation Europe Foundation, 2010, p. 8). One of the questions addressed by the study was whether the new generation (defined as people between the ages of 19 and 29) considered that they had received the necessary tools and guidance for entering the employment market.

Figure 2. Do you think you were given the required skills at school/college to find and hold on to a sustainable job in the present employment market? (5 = yes, very much so / 0 = not at all).

Figure 2. Do you think you were given the required skills at school/college to find and hold on to a sustainable job in the present employment market? (5 = yes, very much so / 0 = not at all).

The study showed that less than one third of the people surveyed believed that they were definitely given (or were currently being given) the required skills at school or college. One in six believed they had not been given the right skills, and the majority were somewhat uncertain.

This is worthy of a deeper analysis. The fact that less than one third of the respondents believed they were given the required skills raises questions about the contributions of education, and how well prepared young people are in meeting the demands of the labor market. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that the report also noted significant national differences. The proportion believing they had missed out on preparation for the employment market (0 or 1 out of 5) was particularly high in Italy and Greece, and lowest in Germany and the UK (Generation Europe Foundation, 2010, p. 8). The study adds a clear message for education policy makers: hands-on work experience could go a long way to addressing the skills gap that prevents young people from landing their first job (Generation Europe Foundation, 2010, p. 9). This is exactly what we mean by the idea of “multi-contextual learning practices,” an idea I will come back to later on. Here it is important to distinguish, as the OECD has presented, the differences between a skills mismatch and a qualifications mismatch.

As the Generation Europe Foundation’s survey illustrates, access to education or training cannot be correlated directly with the acquisition of the particular skills required by the labor market. Excerpts from the “next generation” interviews include:

  • “Most of the universities give far too much theoretical preparation and too little preparation about how to face the real world of work!”
  • “Most students don’t know anything about the business world and how to get the right preparation for job interviews.”
  • “Since I experienced the great difference between reality in my job and the theory that I was taught at university, I would suggest having a field study, practical experience as an obligatory part of the process.”
  • “Too many times I hear people lamenting after they graduate that they had to learn almost everything again at the work place, because the knowledge they got at university (or high school) was useless.”
  • “Universities can do a better job of career advice. Many students still don’t know what they want to do when they graduate. So, the more options you have, the more flexible you become. This poses a real risk for would-be employers – who wants to invest in a person who can change his mind tomorrow?” (Generation Europe Foundation 2010, pp. 9–11)

The OECD’s (2011) report described possible types of mismatch such as being over-skilled or over-qualified, as well as being under-skilled or under-qualified. Today, there is clear and worldwide evidence that an increasing number of people have access to higher education (Cobo and Moravec, 2011). Nevertheless, that growing number of people with higher education degrees cannot, and should not, be understood as representative of a reduction in the previously indicated mismatches. In many cases, as the OECD (2011) report indicates, the increasing number of professionals is resulting in an increasing number of underemployed workers.

The OECD’s Employment outlook (2011, p.195) emphasizes that the underlying assumption of many papers in the academic literature, and most articles in the press, about over-qualification is that what is being measured is a discrepancy between the skills of the individual – often a young graduate – and those required by the job they hold. In fact, while qualifications might at first seem to be one of the closest proxies for skills, they are an imperfect one for several reasons:

At each qualification level, student performance varies significantly and so does field of study, particularly for tertiary-level graduates;

  1. Qualifications only reflect skills learned in formal education and certified training;
  2. Skills learned on the job through labor market experience are not measured; and,
  3. Some of the skills reflected in qualifications may deteriorate over time if they are not used or kept up-to-date.

Despite these differences between qualifications and skills, the OECD (2011) states that:

Qualification mismatch is clearly inefficient and should be of serious policy concern as it implies either that there has been over- or under-investment in education and training – e.g. there is a discrepancy between the shares of complex jobs and highly-qualified workers – or that workers and jobs do not match efficiently along the qualification dimension or both. (p. 221)

The same report explains that it is important to recognize that skills formation and the demand for skills – as well as the process of matching them – are undergoing long-term changes somewhat independently. The challenges still remain almost unchanged, i.e. the necessity to have educational systems that better prepare people for the world of work, not only in terms of academic or technical knowledge, but also in terms of situational skills. However, this cannot be seen as the exclusive problem for those who are about to start working or those who are looking for their first job. This is also relevant in terms of lifelong learning for those workers who want to better suit their company.

The mismatch should be seen as an interdependent and complex phenomenon that can be solved by better articulating the coordination between the work and education sectors. However, the idea of a “better articulation” shouldn’t simply be read as adding more courses or years to the curriculum, but as having a better idea of the importance of the “multi-skilled profiles” that are created by multi-contextual learning practices. Strengthening the connection between schools and universities, work, and “real life” is one of the big challenges. In that sense, it is central to have an education system that is more relevant to work, and that facilitates a more articulated transition (Jimenez, 2006, p. 76). In the following section, I explore “multi-skilled profiles” and “multi-contextual learning practices,” and discuss how they can be better interrelated.

The shift from what we learn to how we learn

Keeping in mind that it is important not to confuse or ignore the difference between a “skills mismatch” and a “qualifications mismatch,” the development of learning practices is analyzed here in a more comprehensive way. Note that “thinking skills” will be regarded in this analysis as complex skills (not basic ones) in different contexts and various environments.

Labaree (2008) criticizes those who habitually use education as a buzzword for the cause of all of society’s problems. He argues that there is a puzzling paradox in “educationalizing” society’s social problems, “even though schools have repeatedly proven that they are an ineffective mechanism for solving these problems.” For instance, if there is a concern about unemployment, education can easily be blamed as the main cause; if people are underemployed, education can also be blamed for being inefficient. In other words, “educationalization” is often assumed to be a shortcut to the solution of almost any problem; “[w]ith the tacit understanding that by educationalizing these problem-solving efforts we are seeking a solution that is more formal than substantive” (Labaree, 2008). In order to confront the educationalizing of society’s problems, Labaree opens up the possibility of a broader perspective of the learning practice beyond the context of formal education.

A broader understanding of learning must also accommodate the concept of lifelong learning, otherwise referred to as continuous learning, life-long learning, life learning, ubiquitous learning, non-standard learning, adult learning, mobile learning, community or peer based learning, etc. All these new and old concepts that suggest more flexible ways of learning have one common denominator which is important to highlight: the strategies used to leverage learning are equally, or even more, important than the content acquired during the learning process. Here, I propose that attention should be paid not only to formal learning, but also to more flexible approaches based on informal education, which can help us to conceive of learning as a dynamic and active process that goes beyond the framework of formal education. Under this perspective, “multi-contextual learning practices” can be considered as a flexible and suitable approaches that should be taken into account.

Informal education can be understood as the learning that goes on in daily life that we undertake and organize for ourselves. Informal learning works through conversation, and the exploration and gaining of experience in changing environments. This contradicts the idea of formal education, which tends to take place in special settings such as schools. However, we should not get too tied up with a consideration of physical setting: formal education can operate in a wide range of settings, often within the same day (George Williams College & YMCA, 2011).

Obviously “informal learning” cannot be understood as an activity instead of “formal learning.” It has to be seen as a supplement that we develop permanently. Informal learning is a useful approach when we think of learning as a continuous, changing and not necessarily certifiable process. The benefit of these flexible approaches is not only the possibility of learning from multiple spaces but also the possibility to develop different kinds of skills and expertise. The challenge now is to find the mechanisms to develop skills, capacities, and techniques that facilitate learning to learn in a continuous, incremental, and smart process, without the restrictions of any specific discipline or teaching program.

Dede (2010) refers to this idea when he writes about scientific learning. He suggests that individuals need to learn to “think scientifically,” and that in order to do so, they need to understand the importance of anomalous results in an experiment. He proposes that what will activate new explorations and the possibility to reach new knowledge is the capacity to inquire, investigate and continuously create new methods of discovery, through what he terms “thinking scientifically” – i.e., the aptitude to explore beyond the information available.

Rearticulating Labaree’s concept of “educationalizing” all the problems of society, it is essential today to have an expanded understanding of learning. However, not everything can be attributed to the quality of an education system. Any individual with a minimum set of knowledge and skills can develop their own strategies to enhance their learning based on different contexts and experiences. In this sense, it is fundamental to create relevance for those strategies and mechanisms that help people to learn within – but also outside – the institutional education framework. This flexibility will provide more relevance for the role of the individual as a continuous self-learning “node” in a networked society.

In terms of learning outcomes, Rotherham & Willingham (2010) add that it is important not to oversimplify the relationship between content and skills:

If you believe that skills and knowledge are separate, you are likely to draw two incorrect conclusions. First, because content is readily available in many locations but thinking skills reside in the learner’s brain, it would seem clear that if we must choose between them, skills are essential, whereas content is merely desirable. Second, if skills are independent of content, we could reasonably conclude that we can develop these skills through the use of any content. (p. 18)

Dede (2010) also supplies the criticism that, in formal education, “knowledge is separated from skills and presented as revealed truth, not as an understanding that is discovered and constructed.” He explains that this separation results in students learning data about a topic rather than learning how to extend their comprehension beyond the information made available for assimilation.

A different understanding of how knowledge is co-created and continuously re-constructed will stimulate not only memorizing of data, but also stimulation of the skills required to “think scientifically.” Here the challenge will be how to create more relevance for the development of these thinking skills, which embrace and stimulate new learning potential. The aim is to combine teaching students how to think, and also to transform the idea that content is to be learned (or memorized in many cases) and that skills are developed only within the classroom. Targeting how to learn, and not only what to learn, stresses the relevance of being adaptable as well as thinking scientifically in different spaces, times, and contexts beyond the boundaries of traditional formal education.

Dede (2010) adds that the development of “thinking skills” highlights the ability to rapidly filter increasing amounts of incoming data in order to extract information that is valuable for decision making. He argues that this is a “contextual” capability, which helps to separate signal from noise in a potentially overwhelming flood of incoming data. This provides a perspective that will help the individual to perform better in a disordered and “miscellaneous” (to use Weinberger’s concept, 2007) environment of information overload.

The fluctuating relationship between digital technologies and content

In a lecture, Google chairman Eric Schmidt delivered a critique of the UK’s education system, stating that it had failed to capitalize on the UK’s record of innovation in science and engineering. Schmidt said the country that invented the computer was “throwing away [its] great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.” (Shepherd, 2011)

Moravec, in an interview with Yu (2010), which explored the use of technologies in learning practices, described his point of view. He argued that technologies should be used to help individuals learn how to think, and not to tell them what to think:

I believe we need to engineer new technologies to help them HOW to learn, not WHAT to learn. Our school systems have focused on WHAT for centuries. Likewise, we see too many educational technologies focus on the WHAT as well (i.e., pushing content rather than new idea generation). WHAT technologies are great for producing factory workers, but for creatives and innovators, we need to focus more on HOW to learn. The rapidly changing world demands no less. Students need to build capacities for continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning to be competitive globally. So, I believe that the technologies that address the HOW question will become the key for educational success in the remainder of the 21st century. (Yu, 2010)

Moravec’s vision can be used to rethink how information and communication technologies (ICT) are used, but it also suggests a broader understanding of learning itself. He emphasizes the importance of learning from changing practices and spaces. In other words, the “how” we learn also becomes an opportunity to include a variety of learning experiences such as experiments, non-planned conversations, peer-based exchanges, peer observation, training, etc. A “multi-skilled profile” refers to the capability of taking advantage of different opportunities for learning, compiling, reprocessing and translating different content into changing contexts.

Levy and Murnane (2004) discuss the kinds of jobs that are likely to endure, and those that will eventually disappear. To do so, they explored the following questions:

  • What kinds of tasks do humans perform better than computers?
  • What kinds of tasks do computers perform better than humans?
  • After their analysis, they conclude that there are three main types of work that cannot be described in rules, and that would therefore be extremely difficult to be undertaken by non-human intelligence. These tasks can be summarized as:
  • Identifying and solving new problems (if the problem is new, there is no rules-based solution to program).
  • Engaging in complex communication —verbal and non-verbal— with other people in jobs like leading, negotiating, teaching, and selling.
  • Doing many “simple” physical tasks and jobs that apparently are trivial but that are also extremely difficult to program, such as making sense of, adapting or transferring knowledge to new problems. (Levy & Murnane, 2004)

Dede (2010) mentions that 21st century skills are different from 20th century skills, primarily due to the emergence of very sophisticated ICTs. The question that now arises is whether these technologies can be used to foster creativity (and other critical thinking skills) or only to perform routine tasks.

Many teachers disapprove of the use of Wikipedia and other online open educational resources due to a concern that students can copy and paste content. It is fair to say that if an educator sets questions that can be adequately answered merely by copying and pasting, it wouldn’t be surprising that the skills promoted might be routine ones (i.e. search, find, copy, paste). However, if teachers set questions to which definitive answers do not exist – that is, which may never exist on Wikipedia or anywhere else – then students will be encouraged to explore and create their own explanations or analyses. This approach of asking new, creative questions goes much closer to promoting the development of expert or critical thinking skills.

Current approaches to technology use in educational environments largely reflect the application of ICTs as a means of increasing the effectiveness of traditional tasks. That can be understood as 20th century, instructional approaches like enhancing productivity through tools such as word processors, e-mail communication, participation in asynchronous discussions, and expanding access to information via Web browsers or video. All of these methods, according to Dede (2010), have proven useful in conventional educational environments. However, the full potential of ICTs for individual and collective expression, experience, and interpretation can go far beyond this point if their use is appropriately stimulated and supported. Dede adds that the use of technological applications is generally excluded from testing environments and processes – i.e. that students’ capacities to use tools, applications, and media effectively are not being assessed. As discussed above, valid, reliable, and practical assessments of knowledge and skills in action are needed in order to improve and promote “multi-contextual practices.”

These tests should not only assess students’ ICT skills, but also their ability to use these skills to solve complex problems involving research, communication, information management, and presentations. These problems should involve both technical skills and learning skills, such as “finding things out,” “developing ideas,” and “exchanging and sharing information” (Dede, 2010).

In their study, The future of learning: Preparing for change, Redecker et al. (2010, pp. 28–30) from the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies compiled a set of prospective studies that aim to improve understandings of the coming role of ICTs in teaching and learning practices. Relevant ideas they presented include:

  • Technology will be one of the main drivers for changing job structures and requirements, and will thus determine which skills people need to acquire.
  • Technology not only affects what we will need to learn, it also affects how we will learn in the future.
  • The key to adequately preparing learners for life in a digital world is to redesign education itself around participative, digitally enabled collaboration within and beyond the individual educational institution.
  • Learning in education and training (E&T) institutions will be based on the principles of self-learning, networked learning, connectivity and interactivity, and collective credibility.
  • Pedagogy will use inductive and de-centered methods for knowledge generation, and open source education will prevail. Learning institutions will be characterized by horizontal structures, mobilizing networks and flexible scalability.
  • There are interrelated “signposts” for the future of education, which indicate a set of challenges and/or opportunities for E&T. These signposts are technological immersion; personalized learning paths; knowledge skills for service-based economies; global integration of systems, resources, and cultures; and, aligning E&T with economic needs and demands.
  • All citizens will need to continuously update and enhance their skills throughout their lives.
  • Individuals will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society; schools will become dynamic, community-wide systems and networks that have the capacity to renew themselves in the context of change.

As a compilation of previously presented perspectives, their work is relevant in re-conceptualizing the use of technologies – not as tools that reinforce the development of routine manual or intellectual practices, but as devices that can contribute to better application of skills and knowledge in changing and unpredictable situations. In addition, it is important to have a clear vision of which ICT practices can stimulate the development of higher order skills such as distributed production of knowledge; knowledge translation; distributed collaborative work; workforce training, re-skilling and up-skilling; and, adaptability, resilience and networking.

As previously discussed, informal and multi-contextual learning practices are considered strategic components for an individual’s development. Therefore, ICTs are powerful tools to facilitate lifelong learning anywhere and anytime. It is important that ICTs are used not only as devices to receive formal education (such as: in school computer class or e-learning), but also as an opportunity to develop more versatile and adaptable learning not restricted to any formal education system.

Access, the ability to modify, and easier modes to share content are key benefits provided by digital technologies. The challenge is to develop the capabilities to access, evaluate and select relevant information. When these essential capabilities are developed – critical evaluation and expertise in locating relevant information – there are virtually unlimited possibilities for new learning.

It is important to understand the skills related to the use of ICTs as competencies that help to create and re-create knowledge in different contexts and formats. These e-competencies (as they will be referred to in what follows), are “meta-competencies that denote the interaction of different skills and knowledge (multi-literacies or hyper-literacies), which are constituted by five underlying concepts: e-awareness; technological literacy; informational literacy; digital literacy; and, media literacy. The relevance of one or more of the underlying concepts will depend on the context and the particular needs of each specific user” (Cobo, 2009, p. 23). This definition embraces cognitive abilities as well as technical proficiencies (to create a multi-skilled profile). It encapsulates the idea that the development of e-competencies is enriched by the continuous interaction and connection between knowledge and experience. Also, it suggests that one of the distinctive characteristics of these e-competencies is their “transferability” between different contexts or formats.

The changing conceptions of space-time and the lifelong learning environment

In discussing the concept of the Information Age, Castells noted how we are reconceptualizing our ideas about time and space:

As with all historical transformations, the emergence of a new social structure is necessarily linked to the redefinition of the material foundations of life, time and space. Time and space are related, in society as in nature. Their meaning, and manifestations in social practice, evolve throughout histories and across cultures […] I propose the hypothesis that the network society, as the dominant structure emerging in the Information Age, is organized around new forms of time and space: timeless time, the space of flows. (Castells, 1997, p. 12)

For more than two centuries, formal education has been organized around industrial principles. Weyand (1925) talked about the harmony between public schools and the “industrial machine” in the mid-1920s: “Industrial education is a method of experimentation for the purpose of finding out what adjustments can be made to bring the culture of the public school into harmony with the culture of machine industry and its accompanying organization” (p. 656).

Rifkin (2010) explains that this idea of an education shaped under the old industrial paradigm is not a matter of the past; he argues that it is still a current problem: “Unfortunately, our system today is still largely mired in those outdated assumptions. The classroom is a microcosm of the factory system.” He criticizes the current (United States) educational system, saying that it has been unable to address the challenges posed by a globalized society: something that sounds very close to what we founded in the report, A nation at risk (1983).

The obsession with hyper-fragmentation and standardization is probably an industrial-era heritage that is still broadly adopted in the current education systems. Nowadays, this Fordist-Taylorist-rooted education can be seen in examples such as uniform rates of assessment; similar mechanisms of incentives (qualification and certification); content disconnects between courses; distribution of classes in equal time intervals (usually of 45 minutes); and, row seating in classrooms, a very clear vertical hierarchy where a small group dictates the performance of the rest. In a nutshell, it is a structure designed to implement an extremely mechanical and homogeneous treatment of the formal learning process (de Bary, 2010).

In this context, the concepts proposed by Castells’ “timeless time” and “space of flows” suggests a different approach, and one that is especially relevant for new learning frameworks. We have referred already to the importance of envisaging a more flexible (and adaptable) understanding of education. Today, more than ever, “timeless time” and a “space of flows” are observable among the youngest generation, who use ICTs at any moment and in any space.

Time and location are therefore not a limitation, at least at the theoretical level. Inevitably, this becomes an opportunity to expand learning throughout one’s life, as well as to continuously develop new skills in changing contexts. Doubtless these ideas can enrich learning, as well as open up possibilities for non-traditional learning experiences. Since the publication of Lessons of experience (1988), the Center for Creative Leadership has continued to support for the belief that upwards of 70% of all learning development occurs through on-the-job experience. This phenomenon has become known as the “70-20-10” rule (McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison, 1988), which describes how learning occurs:

  • 70% from real life and on-the-job experience, tasks and problem solving. This is the most important aspect of any learning and development plan.
  • 20% from relationships, feedback, and from observing and working with role models.
  • 10% from formal training opportunities.

Arguably the “measurability” of what we learn in specific contexts is a matter of discussion, particularly if we consider “tacit” knowledge. Nevertheless, the bottom line of this rule is that the our perception, as well as our practical use, of “space” and “time” have been changing dramatically.

While this is not a new concept (Lindeman, 1926), lifelong and life-wide learning can be seen as the central learning paradigm for the future, and it is likely that learning strategies and pedagogical approaches will undergo dramatic changes. Redecker et al. (2010) suggest that teachers and trainers will need to be trained to support learning that takes place in many environments—at home, at school, and in the workplace. Rotherham and Willingham (2010) add that education faces enormous challenges, and they insist on the importance of teaching skills in context.

In addition, lifelong learning not only describes and expands learning over space and time, it also describes the need to adopt more flexible methods of assessing, recognizing and translating knowledge and skills into different contexts. From the lifelong learning perspective, Redecker et al. (2010, pp. 10 and 28) explain that learning takes place across a number of different “venues” and involves mixed-age groups in many different configurations. The challenges for lifelong learning can be organized into three areas:

  • Promoting a rapid and more fluent transition from school to work in order to reduce the barriers between the worlds of education and work;
  • Facilitating re-entry to the labor market, especially in terms of tackling long-term unemployment; and,
  • Focusing on permanent re-skilling to enable all citizens to keep their competencies updated, and to quickly respond and adjust to possibly fast changing work environments.

Undoubtedly, this perspective offers a variety of possibilities in terms of up-skilling and re-skilling, which can be used today to minimize some of the problems generated by a skills mismatch. In an environment of rapidly changing labor market demand, as well as an imprecise occupational environment, the acquisition of academic degrees alone is not sufficient to ensure that workers’ skills fit well with job requirements. The OECD (2011, p. 221) adds that “upgrade training could help counter skill obsolescence while re-training for a different occupation could be the best solution for workers displaced from declining sectors” (p. 221).

In many instances, opportunities for retraining in high-growth occupations and pathways back into the education system could play a crucial role in addressing skills mismatches and shortages. The availability of accessible retraining options would also allow the workforce to re- or up-skill. More flexible features, such as the ones suggested below (OECD, 2011, p. 220), could make the return to learning easier for adults:

A modular structure, allowing learners to take only the parts of a course they need to re-qualify;

  • High-quality training systems to provide learning credits for skills that are transferable between fields/occupations; and,
  • Part-time learning opportunities for those who want to continue working.

In the knowledge society, skills accumulation cannot end with formal education. A more comprehensive lifelong learning vision is essential to ensure that new skills are acquired throughout one’s careers, and that skills are kept up to date and compatible with the framework of a rapidly evolving labor market. Here, the recognition of non-formal and informal learning may help to reduce the wage penalty faced by the under-qualified due to a lack of formal recognition of their competencies. Measures that recognize non-formal and informal learning can provide value to individuals at various stages of their working lives. The need for lifelong skills development calls for employers that provide on-the-job training, pathways back into the education system, and cost-effective training as part of active labor market policies for the unemployed (OECD 2011, pp. 195-221).

Finally, from a formal education perspective, a high-quality education system must improve the relevance of school curricula by teaching students the practical knowledge, thinking, and behavioral skills demanded by the labor market, using teaching methods that facilitate the blending of academic and vocational curricula. Jimenez (2006, pp. 74 and 96) also mentions the importance of strengthening the connection between schools and the local economy in order to facilitate the school-to-work transition and to boost economic development.

The development of soft skills

Thorndike defined social intelligence as, “[the] ability to understand others and act wisely in human relations” (Thorndike, 1920). He argued that social intelligence is different from academic ability, and that it is a key element in what makes people successful, and, most importantly, happy in life (Shalini, 2009). He based his theory on the following three facets of intelligence:

  1. Abstract intelligence: pertaining to the ability to understand and manage ideas.
  2. Mechanical intelligence: pertaining to the ability to understand and manage concrete objects.
  3. Social intelligence: pertaining to the ability to understand and manage people.

Almost a century later, Goleman popularized another concept very close to the idea of social intelligence. He (in collaboration with Boyatzis, and McKee, 2004, pp. 30-31) focused on emotional intelligence as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance. In their work, the authors summarized twenty-five competencies into four key domains:

  1. Self-awareness: the ability to read one’s emotions and recognize their impact while using gut feelings to guide decisions (often overlooked in business settings). It plays a crucial role in empathy, or sensing how someone else sees a situation; it also includes self-assessment and self-confidence.
  2. Self-management: the ability to control one’s emotions and impulses and adapt to changing circumstances. It also embraces self-control, conscientiousness, adaptability, initiative, and achievement-drive.
  3. Social awareness: the ability to sense, understand, and react to others’ emotions while comprehending social networks. It includes listening and understanding other people’s perspectives.
  4. Relationship management: the ability to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflict. It also involves conflict management, influence, communication, teamwork, and collaboration.

In 2011, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the University of Phoenix Research Institute (UPRI) jointly identified 10 skills that they considered to be vital for the workforce by 2020. The study classified the key proficiencies and abilities required across different jobs and work settings. This prospective analysis provides an overview of the shifting landscape of skills that will be required over the next decade (Davies, Fidler, and Gorbis, 2011).

  1. Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed.
  2. Social intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, and to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions.
  3. Novel and adaptive thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond those that are rule-based.
  4. Cross-cultural competency: the ability to operate in different cultural settings in a truly globally connected world. Given a worker’s skill set could see that person posted in any number of locations, he/she needs to be able to operate in whatever environment that person finds himself/herself in.
  5. Computational thinking: the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.
  6. New Media Literacy: the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.
  7. Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines.
  8. Design mindset: the ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes.
  9. Cognitive load management: the ability to discriminate and filter information in terms of importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.
  10. Virtual collaboration: the ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team.

Regardless of any actual capacity for foresight, these three different perspectives (Thorndike, 1920; Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, 2004; IFTF and UPRI, 2011) illustrate the importance of developing a multi-skills profile that includes such capacities as trans-disciplinary knowledge, lifelong learning development, knowledge translation, improvement of new literacies, and adaptability (understood as a continuous reassessment of the required skills). By no means can these approaches be considered as models to be applied to all situations, regardless of context or circumstances. Different frameworks and tasks will demand the development of specific abilities. However, they illustrate the necessity to promote a set of more flexible and versatile skills. In addition, these approaches highlight the importance of soft skills as key tools for human capital development.

Daniels (2011) explains that, “soft skills, or social behavioral skills, must be learned through understanding and practice. Functional skills may typically be acquired in a logical and systematic way, while management and interpersonal skills must be acquired through training, coaching and practice.” Functional skills (such as driving a car, speaking a foreign language, using a computer or specific software) are easy to measure, assess, and certify. By contrast, the soft skills (also referred to as “people skills” or “social skills”) that are needed for everyday life are typically hard to observe, quantify, or measure. Hurrell (2009) noted that the soft skills involve “interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities to facilitate mastered performance in particular contexts” (p. 397).

Dede (2010) created a compilation of educational policy frameworks from different nations that note the importance of soft skills. Based on his work, I present a compendium of key soft skills:

  1. Critical-thinking: problem-solving skills; managing complexity; higher-order thinking; and, sound reasoning; planning and managing activities to develop a solution or complete a project.
  2. Searching, synthesizing and disseminating information: collecting and analyzing data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions; using models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues; and, transferring individual understanding to real world situations.
  3. Creativity and innovation skills: curiosity; and, using existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products or processes.
  4. Collaboration skills: networking; negotiation; collecting distributed knowledge; and, contributing to project teams to produce original works or to solve problems.
  5. Contextual learning skills: adaptability; and, developing cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures.
  6. Self-direction: risk taking and entrepreneurship.
  7. Communication skills: creating original works as a means of personal or group expression; communicating information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats; and, meaningfully sampling and remixing media content.

As has been described in this chapter, in today’s complex and changing environment, the challenge is to build skills that allow young people to think critically and creatively, as well as to effectively process information, make decisions, manage conflict, and work in teams (Jimenez, 2006, p. 75). The OECD adds (2011), “critical thinking and problem solving, for example, have been components of human progress throughout history, from the development of early tools, to agricultural advancements, to the invention of vaccines, to land and sea exploration. Such skills as information literacy and global awareness are not new, at least not among the elites in different societies” (p. 220).

Brungardt (2011) indicated that as a result of the flattening of the traditional organizational hierarchy, workers at all levels are now required to be proficient in these soft skills. He adds, “as many of these soft skills are required to successfully interact within a collaborative team environment, the possibility of measuring teamwork skills has been explored as a way to measure for soft skill proficiency.”

Rotherham and Willingham (2010) highlight the existing gap between rhetoric about basic skills and the effective integration of these skills into the formal education framework. “These approaches [skills based learning] are widely acclaimed and can be found in any pedagogical methods text-book; teachers know about them and believe they’re effective. And yet, teachers rarely use them.”

Today, it is still a challenge for educational institutions (particularly the more conventional ones) to know how to measure, quantify, and qualify these skills. The existence of a gap between rhetoric about skills (e.g., A nation at risk report or “Partnership for 21st Century Skills”) and the capacity to bring these skills into action (i.e., through multi-contextual learning practices) is still evident. In describing how relevant soft skills have become, Nickson et al. (2011) added, “the soft skills have become the hard skills.”

As Rotherham and Willingham (2010) explain, more than a change in curriculum will be required in order to consistently develop these skills during education and training. Jimenez (2006, p. 72) explains that rather than focusing on rhetoric about skills, the challenge is to promote skills training and their application in different contexts, outside of formal education. He concludes, “teaching such life skills can be integrated into every aspect of the curriculum through discovery-oriented teaching methods that include interactive learning, applying knowledge to real-life problems, integrating teamwork and peer tutoring into the learning process, and inviting student input into the structure and subject matter of lessons” (p. 75). This makes clear why it is extremely important to stimulate the “expert decision making and metacognitive strategies that indicate how to proceed when no standard approach seems applicable” (Dede, 2010).

Conclusions: Shaping the knowmadic profile

The future is a complex and constantly transforming challenge. While we might not be able to predict the future, we can still create a future in which we all want to live. If not, we will have to assume the cost of living in an outdated, obsolescent society that neglects the importance of creating new bridges between the world of education and the fast-paced world of professionals. This chapter ends with a selection of key ideas that can help to frame the discussion around the various topics that will be significant in the redesign of teaching and learning experiences in the coming years.

  1. Interpersonal, social, or soft skills are not exclusive to the 21st century. However, these skills are now fundamental for a broader sector of the population (i.e., not exclusively for the elites as before) as well as for a growing segment of the workforce.
  2. Innovations in the education sector have broadly been adopted over the last few decades, particularly when the rhetoric of innovation has been supported by the use of ICTs within the classroom. However, those individuals who are already studying within the formal education system cannot wait for initiatives in educational reform to be implemented. Implementation can take years: too long for those currently in the system. Instead of “educationalizing” all the problems of society, it is probably a better idea to develop personal strategies to learn, unlearn and reskill from different contexts, situations and interactions.
  3. Mobility can be (re)considered as one element that can provide special relevance to students as well as educators. The possibility to learn from other environments and communities, as well as from changing situations, stimulates new combinations of knowledge, disciplines, as well as adaptation and collaboration, among other relevant soft skills. In addition, the creation of new mechanisms to proliferate work-based learning experiences, as well as the adoption of effective feedback from the labor market, should be considered crucial for adjusting formal education to meet the needs of a work-based society.

In exploring a better way to envision the education process for coming generations of students, it would not make sense to ignore the new possibilities, spaces, and tools that we already have at hand. That is why it is important to explore new spaces and chances for learning from new people, disciplines, and expertise. If knowledge is inherently dynamic, it is important to highlight the idea of learning as a life-long journey – a journey which is not limited by any space, institution, or diploma. Keeping in mind the idea of a continuous voyage, Moravec’s (2008) concept of the knowmad seems to be more than appropriate to describe this expanded learning. He explains:

[A] nomadic knowledge and innovation worker – that is, a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Moreover, knowmads are valued for the personal knowledge that they possess, and this knowledge gives them a competitive advantage. Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas the industrialization of Society 1.0 required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific in regard to task and place. Moreover, technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities.

Experts, policy makers, educators, and deans – as well as self-trainers, workers, learners, and any individuals interested in the relevance of the development of a multi-skilled profile learner from multi-contextual practices – should explore the usefulness of the knowmad concept.

The challenge now, as always, is to bring these ideas to action, and to explore the conditions for triggering those “multi-skilled profiles” which are relevant for stimulating a mode of learning that happens anytime and anywhere. If a knowmad is able to learn and unlearn continuously, then the mismatches described previously will only form part of an endless, but resilient, process of adaptation. It is therefore desirable that the “walled garden” of formal education should find mechanisms and practices to stimulate new forms and new modes of learning, encouraging the creation of more suitable education paradigms. At the same time, it is expected that individuals should embrace and share their own strategies to learn continuously.

It is undeniably true that many regions of the world still only value those experiences and knowledge that is supported by a piece of paper or diploma. But it is equally true that the world of work increasingly demands a leveraging of talent through mechanisms that are more flexible. These elements are just symptoms of a much bigger transformation that will happen (at different speeds) in the world of education. And, those who suit the knowmad’s profile will probably be in a considerably better position to take advantage of these transformations.


Brungardt, C. 2011. The intersection between soft skill development and leadership education. Journal of Leadership Education, 10(1), 1-21.

Castells, M. (1997). An introduction to the information age. City, 2(7), 6–16.

Cobo, C. (2009). Strategies to promote the development of e-competences in the next generation of professionals: European and International trends. SKOPE Issues Paper Series. Retrieved from

Daniels, V. S. (2011). Assessing the value of certification preparation programs in higher education. American Journal of Business Education (AJBE), 4(6), 1–10.

Davies, A., Devin F., and Marina G. (2011).Future work skills 2020. Institute for the Future (for the University of Phoenix Research Institute).

de Bary, B.(2010). Universities in translation: The mental labor of globalization. Hong Kong:Hong Kong University Press.

Dede, C. (2010). Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn (pp. 51–76). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Gardner, D. P. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Generation Europe Foundation. (2010). Employing the NEXT Generation 2010: The right skills in the right place at the right time. Generation Europe Foundation and the FutureWork Forum. Generation Europe Foundation. Retrieved from

George Williams College, & YMCA. (2011). Informal learning. Infed: the informal education home page and encyclopaedia of informal education. Retrieved from

Goleman, D., Boyatziz, R., & McKee, A. (2004). The leadership repertoire. Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence (pp. 53 – 69). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Hurrell, S. A. (2009). Soft skills deficits in Scotland: Their patterns, determinants and employer responses. The University of Strathclyde. Retrieved from

Jimenez, E. (2006). World development report 2007: development and the next generation. World Bank Publications.

Labaree, D. F. (2008). The winning ways of a losing strategy: Educationalizing social problems in the United States. Educational Theory, 58(4), 447–460.

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: how computers are creating the next job market. NY: Princeton University Press.

Lindeman, E. C. (1989). The meaning of adult education. A classic North American statement on adult education. ERIC.

McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988). The lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. New York: The Free Press.

Moravec, J. (2008). Toward Society 3.0: A New Paradigm for 21st century education. Presented at the ASOMEX Technology Conference: Education for Children of the 21st Century, Monterrey, Mexico.

Nickson, D., Warhurst, C., Commander, J., Hurrell, S. A., & Cullen, A. M. (2012). Soft skills and employability: Evidence from UK retail. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 33(1), 65–84.

OECD (2011). OECD Employment Outlook 2011. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from

Redecker, C., Leis, M., Leendertse, M., Punie, Y., Gijsbers, G., Kirschner, P., Stoyanov, S., et al. (2010). The future of learning: New ways to learn new skills for future jobs. Results from an online expert consultation. Seville, Spain: JRC-IPTS.

Rifkin, J. (2010, May 30). Empathic education: The transformation of learning in an interconnected world. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Rotherham, A. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2010). 21st-century skills: Not new, but a worthy challenge. American Educator, 34(1), 17-20.

Shalini, V. (2009). Soft skills for the BPO sector. New Delhi: Pearson Education India.

Shepherd, J. (2011, November 28). Computer lessons are out of date, admits government. Guardian News. Retrieved from

Thorndike, R. K. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper’s Magazine, (140), 227-335.

Tissot, P. (2004). Terminology of vocational training policy. European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training. Retrieved from

Weinberger, D. (2007.) Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Holt.

Weyand, L. D. (1925). What is industrial education? American Journal of Sociology, 30(6), 652-664.

Yu, V. (2010). “Education Futures: An interview with John W. Moravec”. The Academy of You. (Interview by Victor Yu.) Retrieved from

[Back to Table of Contents]