How to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in the 21st century was a growing topic of discussion not just in education but in the general media during 2018. As always, though, there is a good deal of nonsense and quite a few misconceptions in many of these discussions.

Two significant reports

Let’s start with some facts. In 2018, there were at least two significant reports on this topic. The first was from the Royal Bank of Canada, called ‘Humans Wanted.’ This was based on an analysis of big data derived from job postings over a 12 month period on LinkedIn, in which the actual skills being requested by employers were identified and analysed, and from which an analysis of the demand for different types of labour was conducted.

The main conclusion was that there will be plenty of jobs in the future, but they will require different skills from those generally required at the present. In particular, many of the new skills needed will be what are perhaps confusingly called soft skills, such as attentive listening, critical thinking, digital fluency, active learning, etc. (confusing, because these are often as difficult to cultivate as ‘hard skills’.) These will be essential because they are skills that automation and AI cannot easily manage.

Two of the main conclusions from the report were as follows:

  • Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate this new skills economy.

  • Canadian employers are generally not prepared, through hiring, training or retraining, to recruit and develop the skills needed to make their organizations more competitive in a digital economy.

The second report was from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) that claimed to be ‘one of the first major attempts to measure employment-related skills in university and college students on a large scale.’ The first study measured literacy, numeracy and problem-solving abilities of adults using everyday scenarios. The second study used a test designed to evaluate students’ ability to analyse evidence, understand implications and consequences, and develop valid arguments.

The HEQCO study concluded that final-year students had somewhat higher scores in literacy and numeracy than their first-year counterparts, although there was considerable variation among programs, but little difference between the test scores of incoming and graduating students in critical-thinking abilities, although it too showed considerable variation among programs.

These are both valuable studies that identify some of the issues around developing the knowledge and skills that students will need to succeed, not just in the workforce, but in life generally in the last three quarters of this century. However, the two reports have barely touched the tip of this particular iceberg. Neither for instance attempted to suggest how students can develop these skills or what instructors need to do to help students develop such skills. In other words, we have a major pedagogical challenge in several parts:

  • identifying the most important soft skills that students will need (although the RBC report goes a little way in that direction)
  • identifying the best way to teach such soft skills
  • assessing students’ ability in soft skills (although the HEQCO report similarly goes a little way in that direction).
  • identifying the extent to which soft skills are generalisable
  • identifying whether online or digital learning has a specific and important role to play in soft skills development, and if so, how.

I am hoping that in 2019 we will see more disciplined and thoughtful investigations of these questions, but here are some of my thoughts on each of these challenges.

Skills and learning outcomes

The first issue is:

(a) are programs identifying clearly the learning outcomes expected from a program of study?

(b) do these learning outcomes sufficiently take into account skills as well as content/topics?

(c) are these learning outcomes relevant for the 21st century?

It is worth remembering that unlike competencies, many soft skills such as critical thinking are cumulative and do not have a clear end-point. Roger Federer keeps winning not because he continues to get faster and stronger than younger players, but because he continues to hone his skills to a level that compensates for his diminishing strength and speed.

Soft skills need to be developed over a program (indeed a lifetime) rather than in a single course. How do we identify then how to build critical thinking skills from first year through to graduation in a particular discipline?

Teaching soft skills

This is perhaps the most important challenge of all. What methods of teaching are most likely to develop soft skills? We know a lot about teaching skills: breaking down a skill into teachable elements, providing feedback from an expert who already as these skills, and practice, practice, practice. What are the implications of this for not only teaching methods, but also curriculum design? 

Assessing soft skills

One of the challenges that the HEQCO study faced was finding valid and reliable ways to assess soft skills. It is worrying that HEQCO found that after four years of study there was no noticeable difference in critical thinking skills. Is this because this is not being well taught, or because the tests used were not valid?

If we are looking at a skill such as attentive listening, how do we assess it? This is related somewhat to the next issue, about the generalisability of skills training from one context to another.

However, any attempt to identify learning outcomes involving skills requires consideration from the beginning of how these skills can validly be assessed. Faculty should not complain about HEQCO’s assessment methods if they cannot justify their own in this area.


This is perhaps the biggest challenge for educational institutions. How well does an ability to think critically about English literature transfer to other areas of critical thinking, such as political analysis or assessing the behaviour of a colleague?

We know for instance that problem-solving in medicine is different from problem-solving in business. Apart from the knowledge base needed to solve problems being different, so too is the approach to problem-solving. Medicine for instance is risk averse, while in business a certain element of risk-taking is essential.

Probably, some elements of these soft skills do transfer well but other parts are more context specific. But what do we actually know about this based on evidence and is this affecting the way we teach?

The role of online learning

It would seem logical that online (or more accurately digital) learning should have a very important role to play in developing 21st century skills. The obvious is in encouraging digital literacy, ensuring that students have digital skills relevant to their area of study. However, there are other possible roles for digital learning, as we saw earlier in the use of virtual reality to encourage intuitive thinking in scientists.

Online learning: beyond access

We saw from the two national surveys that increasing student access and flexibility has been the main rationale for the expansion of online learning. That job, at least in Canada, has been done really well, and will continue into 2019.

However, I think 2019 is the year we should be pushing online learning to go beyond just increasing access to supporting the development of 21st century skills. How can digital tools, apps and the flexibility of online learning be used to help with some of the following skills:

  • independent learning;
  • problem-solving;
  • critical thinking;
  • digital fluency;
  • attentive listening;
  • empathy;
  • non-verbal communication skills;
  • intuitive thinking.

What (other?) skills could you list that will be difficult for machines to emulate and would be ideal for a digital learning environment?

And what teaching methods (or learning environments) would be best for teaching 21st century knowledge and skills? Let’s make 2019 the year that online learning leads in this area.


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