[GUEST BLOG] Generic Skills: A Dangerous Myth

This blog was originally posted in Dutch on Didactiefonline by Fred Janssen

Translated by Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

Almost every curriculum document emphasises that learners must learn to solve problems, do research, reflect, self-regulate, acquire information, think creatively, and think critically. Often, it’s incorrectly assumed that we’re dealing with broad, generic skills here, meaning that you can presumably learn them in one domain and then apply in others [Also, see Mirjam and Paul’s blog on 21st century skills]. This is a dangerous myth.

The Common Core

There are lots of lists of so-called generic skills floating around out there. They all have one thing in common and that’s that they’re seen as strategies that you can use if the routines/procedures you normally use are inadequate. They come into play when you want to achieve a goal and you’re not sure how. In other words, you have a problem. All generic skills like self-regulation, doing research, acquiring information, and reflecting are examples of problem-solving skills. You formulate the problem, look for possible solutions, and then test those solutions critically.

Curriculum documents show us all kinds of generic problem-solving strategies (Table 1) as well as lists of (fragmented) specific knowledge and procedures (also Table 1).  

Table 1 A-C. Generic skills and domain-specific knowledge examples, extracted from various curriculum documents 

A. 21st century skills [Website in Dutch]

B. Curriculum.nu (Humans and Nature) [Website in Dutch]

C. Final terms secondary school (biology) [Article in Dutch]

According to the ‘21st century skills’ proponents, generic skills in combination with specific knowledge allow learners to get a grip on complex matters in their personal, societal, and professional life. But… Is that so?

Covid-crisis

Let’s take the Covid-19 crisis as an example. How far will you get with a generic problem-solving strategy? (see Table 2 first row).

Let’s formulate the problem first. Well… there are medical, economic, ethical, and other aspects of the crisis that make it difficult to formulate one unambiguous problem. Also, if the problem isn’t clear and/or is ambiguous, how can we come up with a solution and test it?

In ‘real’ life we’re often dealing with ill-structured problem situations. In that case, one of the challenges is to formulate the right problem. So, when dealing with an ambiguous situation, do you then perhaps benefit from the specific knowledge and procedures that we often encounter in curriculum documents [instead of generic skills]? (see Table 2 second row). Nope, not necessarily. Specific knowledge is too detailed because you don’t exactly know which problem you want to solve; a political, biomedical, mathematical, or… and so on. The question is… What’s the missing link?

Domain-specific thinking tools

If you want to get a handle on a complex situation such as the Covid-19 crisis, you first need to zoom out and systematically question the problem from multiple angles. After all, an ethical approach results in a completely different set of questions than an economic one. For example, when looking at the crisis from an economic perspective, you’d focus on scarcity, issues of supply and demand, revenues and costs, and so forth. In contrast, when looking through an ethical lens, you’d look at good versus evil. In that case, concepts such as freedom of choice, justice, and well-being come into play.

Therefore, domain-specific thinking tools (a so-called ‘perspective’) are critical to get a grip on complex situations (see Table 2, third row).

Table 2: Generic skills, domain-specific tools, or specific knowledge?


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Injecting bleach? Or are there better ways to fight the virus?

In late April 2020, U.S. President Trump gave medical researchers unsolicited advice to explore whether injecting bleach would be a good way to fight the disease. Clearly, he had no clue about the bio functional perspective. If he did, he’d never have given such ignorant advice. After all, the bio functional perspective is based on the big idea that an organism has adapted to feed, reproduce, and defend itself in the environment in which it occurs. In other words, this perspective focuses on the virus itself as well as the human defence. It’s pretty straightforward: A virus can’t reproduce without a host. A virus creeps into host cells, multiplies there and then spreads again. [Bleach is not going to prevent it from doing that though it might kill the person and in this way the virus loses its host :).]

How DO we defend against this pathogen?

Three questions can guide us in the right direction:

  1. How to prevent the pathogen (the Covid-19 virus) from entering the host (us)?
  2. How to build a quick first response?
  3. How to specifically recognise and deactivate effectively?

From the bio-functional perspective, the following problem could be formulated to overcome the Covid 19 crisis: What are possible targets to prevent or cure the disease?

The three guiding questions associated with the bio-functional perspective immediately suggest a number of concrete sub-questions and solutions. This requires no detailed knowledge about the immune system.

How can the pathogen be prevented from entering our body? This guiding question ensures that we can ask ourselves the following specific questions about this concrete situation:

  • How does this Covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) actually end up in our body?
  • Where does it usually enter our body?
  • Where does this virus initially multiply in our body?

Answers to these questions then provide direction in strengthening the first line of defence against the virus.

  • How can we prevent the virus from spreading?
  • How can we make sure we don’t catch the virus?
  • How can we ensure that – if it does get in – it doesn’t go to where it multiplies?
  • How can we ensure that if a virus does reach the site, it cannot enter the cell or multiply in the cell?

Now suppose that this first line of defence fails, and the virus does gain entry. The question then is: What’s the first rapid reaction against the pathogen?

In this second line of defence, cells play a role (such as macrophages (large eaters). They can be used as heavy guns against pathogens. In addition, there are substances that ensure that these and other cells are attracted to and have access to the site of infection (type of alarms). This results in inflammatory responses.

When it comes to Covid-19, these inflammatory responses are especially violent in the lungs and can cause a lot of damage. Therefore, on the one hand, it’s important that we look for ways to strengthen the cleaning and alarm function of this second line of defence. On the other hand, we need to explore ways of preventing or suppressing excessive inflammatory reactions.

If this line of defence also falls short, there is a third line of defence: How is the pathogen specifically recognised and effectively rendered harmless? This third line of defence consists of cells that can recognise the specific virus and effectively defuse it. Other cells, for example, the T-killer cells and the B-cells that produce antibodies, offer a helping hand as well. In this light, possible centres of attack also are methods that promote the timely formation of cells with the correct specificity and thus increase the chance of ‘hitting’ the pathogen. The vaccines currently under development seek to strengthen this third line of defence.


Domain-specific thinking tools provide control over certain aspects of complex issues. For example, you can use questions that are associated with the perspective to formulate a problem. The tools also help to divide the problem into sub-problems. In turn, those sub-problems give direction relating to where/how to search for the applicable knowledge and how to test the knowledge to solve a sub-problem. For example, the ‘Injecting Bleach?’ example shows that, when you use questions that are associated with the bio-functional perspective you’re able to come up with a number of ideas for educated guesses to prevent or treat the disease, even if you have little detailed domain knowledge. This way, a perspective functions as a thinking tool to help you question more complex problem situations. In addition, it also provides a ‘hook’ or anchor (a cognitive schema) to hang existing and new knowledge onto in a meaningful and coherent manner.

The ‘active ingredient’ is domain-specific knowledge

Research on the differences between experts and novices when it comes to problem-solving has also shown that better problem solvers don’t necessarily have better generic problem-solving strategies. Though it might sound counter-intuitive, the ‘active substance’ [that distinguishes experts from novices] is domain-specific (see Table 3). Experts’ knowledge of a particular domain is hierarchically organised around central concepts and principles (they can distinguish main from side issues: the ‘depth structure’) and their knowledge is linked to certain types of problems [also see Mirjam and Paul’s blog on domain-specific knowledge versus domain-independent skills].

In a problem situation, they recognise what knowledge is potentially relevant and have domain-specific strategies that guide the search process. Also, because they’re regularly successful, they don’t give up quickly when things get difficult and they consider making mistakes inevitable when exploring uncharted territory. People who are less skilled problem-solvers in a certain domain (i.e., have few domain-specific skills and less domain-specific knowledge) often only have access to superficial / surface-level characteristics because they only have fragmented knowledge. They simply don’t recognise the depth structure in a problem situation [they don’t have the same depth of knowledge and the knowledge they have is not as well organised] and they have no choice but to use generic problem-solving strategies. As a consequence, they experience far fewer success experiences and because of that, they lack domain-specific self-confidence, give up when things get tough, and sometimes try to avoid making mistakes.

Table 3. Differences between experts and novices. Summarised overview from Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013, p. 85

AspectsExpertsNovices
FactsIntegratedFragmented
ProceduresAutomatedRequires conscious effort
ConceptsDeep structureSuperficial structure
StrategiesDomain-specificGeneric
AttitudesProductiveNot productive

In short, generic skills are not a magic bullet. The ‘active ingredient’ for successful and innovative problem-solving is domain-specific. Research on transfer also shows that reflective, creative, and critical problem-solving does indeed exist, but [and this message needs to be heard loud and clear] it needs to be redeveloped for every domain. For example, if you’ve learned what kind of questions historians ask and how they work when trying to find answers and how they critically test them, it helps you not one bit in formulating and solving, for example, ethical, statistical, geographic, or economic problems.

Why are generic skills a dangerous myth?

The myth that generic skills could make ‘the difference’ is very persistent and has great appeal. After all, if generic strategies really made the difference, we’d no longer need to introduce learners to any particular field and we wouldn’t need teachers who specialise in a particular subject or domain. If the ‘generic skills’ myth was true, we’d be able to achieve coherence by just focusing on these skills, because they would be the same for all domains. That would be fantastic as we could reduce an overloaded curriculum big time. Schools, teachers, and learners could choose any themes of their liking to learn these general strategies.

However, the promise of generic skills is an empty shell.

As long as we keep focusing in this empty shell, it distracts attention from developing the domain-specific thinking tools that allows learners to really learn to solve problems creatively and critically.

Fred Janssen is Professor of Science Education and works at the ICLON Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching.

This blog was originally written in Dutch and appeared in the magazine Didactief (https://didactiefonline.nl/blog/blonz/de-gevaarlijke-mythe-van-de-brede-vaardigheden)

Recommended Reading (Some in Dutch)

For an insightful analysis of the common core of higher order thinking processes see paragraph 1.1. and 1.2.
De Groot, A. D. (1961). Methodology: Foundations for research and thinking in the behavioural sciences. The Hague, Mouton

For a substantiation and additional arguments as to why teaching generic skills doesn’t work.
Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational psychology review, 26(2), 265-283.

For a good and accessible overview of the results of research into transfer and expertise.
Pellegrino, J.W. & Hilton, M.L.(Eds.) (2013).Education for life and work. Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington DC, National Academic Press.

For an accessible foundation why perspectives are essential to get a grip on poorly structured complex problem situations (‘swamps’).
Janssen, F.J.J.M. (2017). Grip op complexiteit. Onderwijs voor het ‘moeras’. Oratie. Leiden. ICLON

For a brief outline of possible perspectives for a generic curriculum with references to elaboration.
Janssen, F.J.J.M. (2020). Vragen leren stellen voor het leven. Didactief online.

7 thoughts on “[GUEST BLOG] Generic Skills: A Dangerous Myth

  1. Tatawan Suto says:

    What a fantastic article! Thank you so much for taking the time to translate this from dutch. This addresses so much of why some one size fits all approaches to problems doesn’t sit well for me.

    Like

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