Knowledge, competencies and skills for life and work

Heribert Hinzen

Steffi Robak
Leibniz University Germany 


Abstract – Skills for life and work is regarded holisticaly here. It is life in its totality – as youth, adults and the elderly, all genders and generations, lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep. And when we look at work, then we mean all kinds of jobs, but we hope for decent work. Thus it is our attempt to grasp a deeper understanding of knowledge, competencies and skills for citizenship, the broader context of the Education 2030 Agenda.

What are the 21st century skills? What are the skills for the future? Can we even generate skills through education and learning to anticipate the future?

By skills we mean knowledge, competencies, capacities, qualifications as well as attitudes and values. When we talk about skills we talk about all these aspects. The field is complex. Additionally, there is the problem of translation. Even in the three languages in which we publish Adult Education and Development, the way we understand knowledge, competencies, capacities, skills, attitudes, values is quite diverse. It doesn’t end with that. There are many more options for misunderstandings if you look at the literature or in dictionaries. If you are brave enough to search for “skills” in Google, you get more than a billion related entries. Do a Google search on “competencies” or “knowledge” and you also get more entries than you can look at. The definition and comprehension varies according to the diversity of context and by whom the words are used. To put this issue of AED into context, we will now try to paint a picture of this very complex field.

Words and definitions

Given the multitude of ways in which to understand and define these words, we will not try to go into details of definitions, discuss similarities, commonalities and differences between these words, or the day-to-day use of the words associated with skills. Nevertheless it is inspiring to look at a list of a few words which are frequently mentioned when we talk of basic, personal, social, transversal, soft, transferable, life, livelihood, literacy, manual, vocational and entrepreneurial skills. These are often combined with arguments that the skills gap needs to lead to a skills offensive which will reduce the skills shortages that hinder the development of individuals and of society.

This rich diversity became clear to us during two meetings of the editorial board of this journal. Board members from Latin America came with a strong notion on popular education, those from the Nordic countries in Europe brought to the table a tradition of relating adult education more to enlightenment and citizenship. Colleagues who are closer to employability and decent work underlined the importance of the huge variety of technical and vocational skills – they all brought their arguments and made their points of what this issue should include in order to fully cover the many dimensions of skills and competencies.

Since we want to provide ideas and experiences on how to put education, learning and training into practice for the development of competencies and skills for life and work, we have to ask: What does it really mean for rural and for urban areas, for villages and cities, in the different countries and continents? At the same time we want to learn from innovative examples in the teaching of youth and adults, through popular education or study circles, in community learning centres or in universities, from the diversity of providing new skills and competencies for migrants or refugees, from dis aster-struck communities, or the necessary skills to deal with crisis and conflict. And we wonder whether we all understand in the same manner, because this goes well beyond common practices and the clarity of definitions which have been in use for generations.

“Learning environments, teaching and learning in institutions and social settings are still highly relevant for learning and education.

Adult education and lifelong learning

There seem to be some important notions and strengths of knowledge, skills and competences in respect to lifelong learning and adult education that are essential to mention: We have evidence that, the higher the level of general knowledge of a person and of groups, the easier it is for them to acquire skills and competencies which are needed to cope with the challenging changes in societies and the globalised world. Learning environments, teaching and learning in institutions and social settings still have a significant relevance for learning and education (Baethge/Baethge-Kinsky 2004). Learning competencies – which combine the abilities to decide when it is necessary to learn something new, how to learn and where to participate in learning and education processes – are high when individuals have had positive non-formal learning experiences in different institutions and institutionalised learning contexts. These findings highlight the relevance of formal and non-formal learning opportunities, which are so diverse on different continents, in different countries and communities. It shows that competencies can be addressed in different ways: knowing how to know, participating in life and work.

“It is still not possible for the individual to achieve this process of building up her or his competencies all by herself or himself.

During the past decade, competencies have had specific meanings regarding employment and work. Especially for employment, the opinions about definitions and the structure of competencies are very diverse. From a vocational perspective, people are skilled when they acquire certain competencies which are linked to employment, profession, positions and tasks. Furthermore, it has become very popular to evaluate competencies. These competencies follow former ideas of qualification but focus on the individual (Arnold 2011), not questioning how these competencies are learned by the individual. This is a pity, since it is important to understand how competencies are being generated on the basis of knowledge, by practicing, by reflecting experiences, by (self) evaluation and through dialogue. More importantly, it is still not possible for the individual to achieve this process of building up her or his competencies all by herself or himself. Institutionalised and sophisticated learning environments are needed. In addition there is a great interest in generic competencies which enable people to transfer knowledge and skills into other contexts and working tasks. Today we have to rethink necessary generic competencies that enable individuals to handle globalisation effects and digitalisation 4.0 with regard to access to work and employment. Work is an important part of life, and facing mobilisation and migration we have to question how relevant life skills change continuously.

“Today we have to rethink necessary generic competencies that enable individuals to handle globalisation effects and digitalisation 4.0 with regard to access to work and employment.

Apart from the big economic, social and cultural differences still existing in countries and regions, new societal processes of transnationalisation occur, in the sense of a growth of mutual relations and reciprocal effects through policies, mi gration and economic globalisation processes (Pries 2008). From a cultural perspective, transnationalisation requires awareness of the existence of transcultural effects. This means that cultures no longer should be conceived of as single and complete entities with different identities, but as linked and interrelated cultures which are exposed to strong cultural dynamics and have strong effects on each other. Living in such connected cultures requires a transcultural perspective on how skills are achieved which help one understand and reflect cultural differences and, in addition, to be able to think about possibilities of how to shape transcultural forms by including different cultural perspectives and interpretation systems. This transcultural skill consists of a cognitive and an emotional part, because knowledge is linked to emotions; and patterns of emotions are an initial part of learning and educational activities and practices (Damasio 2004; Gieseke 2007).

Studies – CiLL, PIAAC, PISA, AES, BeLL

A very specific set of skills have increasingly been mentioned as crucial. We talk, of course, about computer skills. It seems they are almost a prerequisite for life and work for the younger generation today, and are often not less important for those who have to update their skills to achieve the needed “Competencies in Later Life” (CiLL).

CiLL focuses on the 66 to 80 year old population and opens up and deepens a debate which we have on the one hand with what we learn and teach within U3A, the universities of the third age (the silver generation), in the light of the increasing studies and statements on current and future demographic trends. On the other hand we can look at CiLL as in line with and complementing the PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) research of skills sets for the 16 to 64 years cohort. Finally there is also PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) which in the meantime has had several rounds to measure literacy, mathematic and scientific competencies of those at school aged 15.

In as much as we see the need for recognition, validation, and accreditation of learning outcomes, we would like to shed light on what all the new qualification frameworks mean for non-formal or informal learning. “Recognition, validation and accreditation (RVA) refers to the establishment of arrangements to make visible and value all learning outcomes (including knowledge, skills and competences) against clearly defined and quality-assured standards. RVA covers the whole process, including identification, documentation, assessment and accreditation of learning outcomes from different settings.” (Yang 2015: 10)

These studies focus on the individual achieving her or his competencies. The studies take interest in showing competence levels and measure individually gained competencies. There are more studies showing that adult education, enterprises and other institutions, but also informal learning forms, are important for skills (AES – Adult Education Survey). Participation behaviour varies in all different countries and is influenced by many aspects and societal and institu tional circumstances. The BeLL study shows the wider benefits of general education and shows how skills, learning and participation in a broader sense are linked to each other and how important it is to look at life in all its dimensions. Personal life and work should always be in a balance.

Focus on life and work

When we mention life, then we have a very holistic view. It is life in its totality – youth, adults and the elderly, all genders and generations, lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep, being healthy and happy, or not, performing in functions and roles which we like, or would like to change. And when we look at work, we mean all kinds of jobs, but we hope for decent work. Thus it is our attempt to grasp a deeper understanding of knowledge, competencies and skills for citizenship and employability.

We learn as we live, and this learning can be associated with all kinds of formal education on different levels, or schooling, colleges or universities, or non-formal education in community learning centres, vocational or professional training institutes, or through the growing options via informal arrangements using media and information technologies, often combined with face-to-face arrangements.

However, more and more, even with the improvements of better technical and vocational training we realise that especially literacy and other basic skills, transferable or transversal skills are needed to comply with the needs of the individual in the community or society at large and to accord with employability-related competencies and skills.

Recent research and policy development tell us also that knowledge, competencies and skills in the narrow sense are not enough. We need, maybe more importantly, to also look at values and attitudes, especially when we want to contribute to sustainable development. “It is most critically about making sure that individuals acquire a solid foundation of knowledge in key disciplines, that they develop creative, critical thinking and collaborative skills, and that they build character attributes, such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage and resilience.” (Schleicher & Tang 2015: 9)

Agenda 2030

With this issue we will try again to provide follow-up on an earlier edition of Adult Education and Development where we looked at the Post 2015 process towards implementation of Education for All (EFA) as well as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which were both declared to run for 15 years in the year 2000. The World Education Forum in 2015 came up with an Education Agenda 2030 Framework for Action. The Incheon Declaration was included as Goal 4 into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

This overarching goal is to: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. It is followed by specific targets that are related to early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling, universities, technical and vocational training, youth and adult literacy – all in a dimension of gender parity and equal access for people in vulnerable situations. In describing these targets there is a very interesting note in the context of our discussion: “A narrow focus on work-specific skills reduces graduates’ abilities to adapt to the fast-changing demands of the labour market. Therefore, beyond mastering work-specific skills, emphasis must be placed on developing high-level cognitive and non-cognitive transferable skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, teamwork, communication skills and conflict resolution, which can be used across a range of occupational fields. Moreover, learners should be provided with opportunities to update their skills continuously through lifelong learning.” (UNESCO Education 2015: 15)

Finally, there is “Goal 4.7: By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” (UNESCO Education 2015: 18) Reading this, it becomes quite clear that engaging in human rights or peace, and leading a sustainable lifestyle requires more on top of knowledge, competencies and skills. We need to look at attitudes and values in all educational processes of lifelong learning.

Rethinking and re-skilling

UNESCO, as the UN organisation for educational, social and cultural issues, has kept its role as a think tank, engaging in generating ideas, orientation and reflection, and also providing opportunities to participate in debates, meetings, and studies. Landmark publications carry titles like The World Educational Crisis by Philipp Coombs in 1968, Learning to Be in 1972 by Edgar Faure, or the Delors Report Learning the treasure within in 1995. Rethinking Education. Towards a global common good? is the most recent in this series, and carries a very interesting note for us:

“Knowledge can be understood broadly as encompassing information, understanding, skills, values and attitudes. Competencies refer to the ability to use such knowledge in given situations. Discussions about education (or learning) are habitually concerned with the intentional process of acquiring knowledge and developing the ability (competencies) to use them. Educational efforts are also increasingly concerned with the validation of knowledge acquired. However, discussions about education and learning in today’s changing world need to go beyond the process of acquiring, validating and using knowledge: They must also address the creation and control of knowledge.” (UNESCO, Rethinking 2015: 79).

We thus have come very close to what the British philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, claiming that “knowledge itself is power”. This, together with the Brazilian thinker Paolo Freire and his “no education is neutral” argument, shows us it is important to continue examining critically the words and meanings that are behind theoretical concepts, political statements, empirical research, or practices and activities which are being advertised and propagated in the context of competencies and skills. Thus our engagement in adult education and lifelong learning becomes more than acquiring knowledge as a sort of information accumulation, and we are no longer re-skilling according to what may be needed to merely function in society, but joining in creating a sustainable world for all.


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About the authors

Heribert Hinzen, Prof.(H) Dr., earned his doctorate with a thesis on Adult Education in Tanzania at the University of Heidelberg. He worked for DVV International from 1977– 2015 in Bonn, Sierra Leone, Hungary and Laos. He teaches at several universities. Earlier he served as Vice-President of ICAE and EAEA.

Steffi Robak, Prof. Dr., is a professor of Adult Education and Diversity Education at Leibniz University in Hanover. At the Institute for Vocational Education and Adult Education, she focuses on intercultural education and international education research in areas such as education management and professionalisation in adult education.

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