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The changing world of skills

This article explores the challenge of skills development in the workplace and learning for lifelong skills development.
Cloud containing the word 'skill' with arrows pointing out from different angles to link the words training, experience, ability, growth, advanced training, knowledge, learning and competence.
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In this article, we discuss how a changing world is leading to an emphasis on new types of skills and competencies.

This line of discussion raises a fundamental question: What is a skill? In responding to this question, we also explore various definitions and how to conceptualise different types of skills.

What is a skill?

There is no simple answer to the first question, as a skill can be defined in many different ways. According to the European Commision (2015), the word “skill”…

“Refers to the ability to apply knowledge, use know-how to complete tasks and solve problems and carry out the tasks that comprise a particular job. As an overarching/multidimensional concept/term, “skill” can be also used as a proxy measure on occupation, qualification, educational attainment (these measures have the benefit of being readily available in a range of quantitative datasets).
Other abilities, used at daily work, such as teamwork and problem-solving, are also considered as skills (however it is not always easy to be measured due to their subjective nature)”
In this definition, we see that the focus is very much on “doing” – what distinguishes a skill from knowledge, for example, is that it has a practical dimension.
As this definition implies, however, the concept of a “skill”, or the ability “to do”, can be inherently subjective.
The ability to expertly paint a picture, for example, might be easily-regarded as a “skill” (and an uncommon one, at that), but the nature of “problem-solving” involves elements that go beyond skill, as it reflects the knowledge, experience, and tacit forms of understanding which are difficult to separate from a wider constellation of competencies.
While these terms will not be new to many educators, for more information see Tony Bates’ discussion on this topic.

The changing nature of knowledge

A similar point, noted by Prof. Ulf-Daniels Ehler (2020) in his recent online book on future skills (which we encourage you to explore), is a general pivot in the nature of knowledge. He argues that:
Knowledge is no longer being thought of as something that is developed and stored in the minds of students, experts, represented in books, and classified into disciplines. Instead, it becomes more and more apparent that knowledge is now seen more as a fluent, energy-like system of networks and flows. Knowledge is defined – and valued – not for what it is, but for what it can help to do (Ehler, 2020: 14).

Although challenging, we argue that skills can be mapped into varying types of taxonomy, some of which might be more useful than others, depending on the ultimate purpose of that taxonomy.

The need for change

Irrespective of taxonomy, the need for change, and for new means of exploring and categorising future skills, is a critical task for institutions, national qualification and quality assurance frameworks, and individual lecturers also.

Let’s consider the following questions:

  • What does the term “skill” mean to you?
  • Do you have a particular definition of the word, that distinguishes it from other, related terms, such as “task” or “competency”?
  • What types of skills and competencies do you think are critical for future-proofing careers?

If you’d like to learn more about careers, check out the full online course, from Dublin City University, below.

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