Skills: in search of the Holy Grail
Skills seem to have become the Holy Grail of modern education policy, as something that we do not quite know how to grasp, but that we think will bring us unbounded rewards and salvation in economic crises. And there is a lot to argue for this. We just brought out a new study showing that the children born this year in OECD countries could be richer by some 260 trillion dollar over their lifetime if the school systems in the industrialised world deliver the skills that the best performing education systems show can be achieved. The interesting point here is that the predictive power of skills, of what people can actually do, on their life chances is significantly greater than the predictive power of formal qualifications.
But there are sceptics too, who do not see how you square the toxic combination of Europe’s unemployment, on the one hand, and skill shortages, on the other, and who compare the skills agenda rather with the Alchemist’s stone, that was sought by medieval chemists to transmute ordinary metal into gold, producing untold riches, assuming that the laws of supply and demand would no longer hold.
The Holy Grail was a well defined and described object, and there was only one true grail. That's obviously never going to be true when it comes to skills. It is not the skills per se, but the interaction between the availability of skills and their effective utilisation in a given context that creates value.
Research highlights the dramatic changes in skill use and skill demand. It is frightening then to see the almost autistic nature of education systems that lack the eyes and ears to see how the world is changing, and to recognise the demand for skills and changes in the demand for skills in national standards, curricula and instructional practices.
A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for a lifetime. Today, education and training need to prepare students for more rapid change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise. Students typically learn individually and at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators. For a more inclusive world, we also need people who can appreciate and build on different values, beliefs, cultures.
How will recognise them when we find them? For the Alchemists, that was easy: The Alchemists stone was to be recognised by the transformation of all metal into gold. In our case, that's much more complex.
One of the reasons why education and training have often done poorly in meeting the demand for new skills is that that it has proved difficult to monitor and measure both the demand and the supply of skills. At the OECD, with support from the European Commission, we are undertaking a comprehensive internationally comparative assessment of adult skills, called PIAAC, that will help governments to monitor the demand and supply of skills that are central to the success of individuals and economies. The test of truth is not whether people have acquired a qualification, but whether what they have learned will make a difference to their lives and society.
Of course, that leaves the question of how to get there. The medieval Alchemists were no doubt consequent in following the dictates of their science. But their science was wrong, and I think that is, unfortunately, true also for much of our discussion in the skills area. The search for the Holy Grail was overburdened by false clues and cryptic symbols. That too is a risk for our work on skills. But there are some issues that can guide a meaningful search.
First of all, we need to recognise that learning is not a place, but an activity. We are talking a lot about how to get people into educational institutions and programmes, but how to we take learning to the learner, that is the question about skill formation in the future, looking at entirely new forms of educational provision.
We complain about people who do not develop their skills or who drop out of educational programmes, but how do we recognizes that people learn differently, and differently at different stages of their lives, and how do we strive to meet those individual needs of people, wherever they are?
How do we develop new relationships and new networks between learners, providers (new and old), funders, and innovators?
How do we improve the knowledge base about skill development, how do we supports systems of continuous innovation and feedback to develop knowledge of what works in which circumstances?
We talk about the importance of building closer links between learning at school and learning at the workplace. But how exactly do you balance student preferences with employer demand, and how do ensure government support in case of market failure? How do you ensure that teachers in school-based training have the actual work experience? And how do you ensure that teachers in work-based components have the required pedagogical experience?
In short, we need to think about the right skill mix, we need to ensure that the skills are well taught, and that skill development is delivered in the right place.
The most obvious lesson that we can learn from the search for the Holy Grail is that we should not regard skills as absolutes or as bright shining objects, the very possession of which produces eternal life or unbounded wealth. It will always remain tempting to search for the ultimate skill list. But what matters more is a better understanding for the ways in which both the demand and supply of skills articulate themselves and then to build policies on this kind of labour-market intelligence.
That requires strong stewardship from a new coalition of governments, businesses, and social investors who together bring the legitimacy, innovation, and resources that can make it a reality.
It requires also a mixture of learning providers—public, private, and third sector organizations and individuals who provide content, learning opportunities, and instruction to learners of all ages. To drive innovation, future systems need to actively encourage new entrants and not allow monopolies to persist.
All stakeholders must be prepared to invest more time and money in learning. Investing in learning needs to be tax-efficient for individuals and their employers. Those out of work need resources to incentivise learning. Governments need to use regulation and taxation to encourage financial institutions to develop new financial instruments that allow learners to access opportunities when they need them most. They can do this by lowering cost, reducing risk, and smoothing repayments.