Skills and competencies for life and work – magic recipe?

Katarina Popovic, PhD, is Secretary General of the International Council for Adult Education, Professor at the Belgrade University, visiting lecturer, President of the Serbian Adult Education Society, member of International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame, Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Andragogical studies” and author of numerous articles and books in the field of adult education.


We have seen this for a long time. The gap between general education and vocational education and training. It has persisted in the science, research and policy of education as two different paradigms, two separate pathways leading to completely different goals. This artificial split only ever functioned in the educational practices of formal education (and from the formal point of view) or at the extreme poles of the educational reality continuum. It is a split that has been harmful for both paradigms and has hindered faster development of educational ideas and more innovative practices.

As such, this had to end. The growing problems on both sides – growing unemployment, fast changing industry, new types of economies, technological development, as well as a growing uncertainty, an increased number of conflicts, lack of tolerance, climate change and environmental problems has forced us to finally pay more attention to both education for the world of work and education for a changing life. Limited resources emphasise the necessity of finding new ways to approach education, to be efficient and locate synergies, and last but not least, for the logic of the holistic reality of the person who learns.

A concept of skills for work was supposed to cover TVET and everything around the world of work. Skills for life got the task to prepare people for everything else – literacy and numeracy, basic education, ICT, environmental awareness, peace and interculturalism, science, communication and human relationships ... and a lot of other things. This combination of skills for life and skills for work became very popular, and the main global policy makers adopted it, even those who were earlier pleading for completely different paradigms (such as UNESCO and OECD; the European Commission took the lead in the uncritical use and application of the concept). The promising unity of various skills soon became a kind of recipe for all fields of education. All sorts of vocational skills, even very practical ones, for a concrete purpose and single use, were put in the basket together with abstract cognitive skills, metacognition and critical thinking, with personal traits and human relationships!

In some cases the term skills was replaced with the term competencies, which is a bit broader and less reductive, but skills for life and work, as a set, resisted this change. Even the difficulties in categorising skills in this dichotomous way did not lead to further questioning of the dominating paradigm nor any development of the next steps.

Of course, the problem of such an uncritical, not clearly articulated combination lies not in their separation, but in the only sphere where it works already (and worked even before, unnoticed by policy makers and theoreticians), in educational practice. Many initiatives, projects and programmes already did show that only a holistic, integrated approach can work for education. But they have yet to reach the creators of the policy concept and influence the rethinking of the current trend in combining skills. It’s not about percentage of skills for work and percentage of skills for life in the curricula, it’s not about simultaneous or consecutive provision of them, it’s not about identifying and adding more and more skills, or about making priorities among them.
Further development should focus on finding various innovative ways of combining skills (including competencies and knowledge), on functioning models that work for the person/ learner and for industry/economy (not forgetting society!), on identifying the elements of successful programmes in an existing provision (good practice examples), and above all, on a broader, contextual, integrated approach in/to education. Special attention and support should be given to the initial and further education of teachers and trainers, since they have the crucial role. A deeper research and new understanding of the phenomena of learning itself might also contribute to the new ways of building bridges between different areas of human life. Including work.

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