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September 26, 2018  


Fred Oswald seems to audibly cringe when the words “21st Century Skills” are mentioned. But that’s not to say the professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology
in the  Department of Psychology at Rice University does not think such skills exist. Rather, he believes this set of “non-cognitive” skills – including resilience, pro social skills, conscientiousness - have always been required in society, but the demand for them has now increased.  

“What makes them 21st century skills? Technology and internationalisation – these disrupting forces, how are they going to shift the relative weight on these skills,” he asks.  “With automation, if the technical aspect can be automated, does that leave the worker to have to concentrate on the non-cognitive skills, the social skills? I would not say these are new skills, but they are [now] just receiving more emphasis [from employers].”

Speaking on this week’s Podagogy podcast, he explains that organisations will try and influence education so as to produce workers with these skills.

“Businesses have an interest to find talent that will give them a competitive edge, so [if] they can [persuade schoolsto] develop that talent to their own advantage they will do it,” he explains.

Whether schools should – or can – listen is, of course, highly debateable.

Oswald’s view is that a balance is needed. He believes schools should have an eye on what the jobs market requires, but that businesses need to be more realistic about their role, too.

“Some organisations need to lean more to training, rather than selection, they are depending too much on the school system,” he argues.

But can schools even teach the non-cognitive skills companies are asking for, if they did choose to do so? Oswald says the research cannot yet answer that question, but believes the work of professors Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck (who have both appeared on the Podagogy podcast) is beginning to show us what might be possible.

He also explains that some of the research he has undertaken with US assessment companies has also produced encouraging results of correlation between grade scores and these skills.

But for now, he thinks teachers just need to have these skills in mind when teaching, and to think about the balance between them and knowledge.

“We need to do more research to understand the balance between skills and knowledge in schools and how that translates to value for organisations,” he says. “A lot of effort and team work and leadership happens in classrooms but we do not necessarily recognise it as such [through assessment] . I think educators need to be more mindful of these skills in their classrooms.”

Oswald also discusses the impact of big data on assessment and the “partial reality” of the ‘skills gap’.