Program for
Program for

Higher-Order Skills

  • The ptsx perspective
  • 18 Nov, 2022

Public service leadership has never been so challenging or complex. Public service leaders work across organisations to tackle ongoing and emergent policy challenges and improve the impact of public services. They have to make space for innovation while managing risk and being accountable for results. They must support fast-moving political aspirations, manage and transform vast public organisations, motivate and inspire their workforces, and be trusted partners to citizens and various stakeholders. All of this while promoting the highest level of personal and professional ethics and integrity.

These above challenges are made more acute in the context of increasingly fast-paced and disruptive changes of the 21st-century (technological advancements, unforeseen crises such as the global coronavirus pandemic, evolving citizens’ expectations, etc.). This situation demands a public service that has the leading skills of the 21st-century (Higher-order skills) to efficiently identify, adapt to, and overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Higher-order skills: leading 21st-century skills

Higher-order skills are the core intellectual competencies and are recognized as leading 21st-century skills. These skills develop the intellectual traits of persons and determine their quality of thinking and thought process. These skills are fundamental to Higher-order cognitive functions such as – decision-making, evaluation of problems/issues and finding creative & reasonable solutions (real-world problem-solving), forward-looking planning, strategic use of resources, responsible leadership, collaborating constructively with different stakeholders to deliver outcomes, communicating effectively to take people along with, etc. Since the nature of civil servants' work is increasingly Higher-order cognitive functions in today's world, these skills are essential for high-performing civil service in the 21st-century.

Higher-order skills are fundamentally different from lower-order skills in nature and applications. Lower-order skills include recall, repetition, memorization, fluency of matter/topics, and a narrow understanding of the text. Lower-order skills are more significant for repeated, regular, and routine types of work in today’s digital era.

Higher-order skills are the ability to direct our thinking consciously to be critical, independent, strategic (risk management, far-sighted and resilient), creative and inclusive. Higher-order skills are crucial to a deeper understanding of real-world experiences, improve the quality of our thinking, provide us with a clear point of view, and develop our mature perspective on real-world events, issues, problems, and crises. As a result, these skills broaden our horizons and develop a profound mind. The worldview based on broad horizons and a profound mind is close to reality and the responses are intended and more productive. Therefore, these skills enable us to understand and perform today’s Higher-order cognitive functions in the best way.

Today’s world is more complex and challenging; therefore, quality decisions based on critical thinking and strategic thinking are required at every step to thriving well. Understanding the significance of Higher-order skills to thrive well in today’s world, it is even more urgent that the new generation of the country is provided with the opportunity to develop these skills from the beginning. As a result, the National Educational Policy 2020 is based on the principle that education must not be restricted to the development of literacy and numeracy but ‘Higher-order’ cognitive skills (i.e. Higher-order skills) such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

" Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. "

Albert Einstein

Higher-order skills can be best understood with an example of the unemployment situation in India -

The ability to define employment and unemployment and to know related data and government schemes and initiatives is an example of lower-order skills, but to understand, observe, examine, and evaluate the root causes of the unemployment situation in India, how effective government schemes and initiatives are to deal with it, and finding creative and reasonable solutions is an example of Higher-order skills.

Both of the above situations are about unemployment in India and both require the foundational knowledge that forms the “facts” of what makes up unemployment and related data, but the second objective goes beyond facts to an actual understanding, application, examination, and evaluation of the unemployment situation.

Higher-order skills include mainly –

  • Critical thinking,
  • Strategic thinking,
  • Innovation thinking (creative thinking),
  • Collaboration,
  • And communication skills

Critical thinking:

Critical thinking is the most important skill of the 21st-century. Today, public servants have to be more thorough, more adaptive, more flexible, and able to assess multiple scenarios for the same problems/issues and generate solutions that might have not been implemented before. Thus, critical thinking is essential given that it helps “ overcome and become aware of biases, false assumptions, myths, and faulty paradigms that can hamper effective decision making ”.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally (logical and evidence-based) about what to do or what to believe. In essence, critical thinking is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.

  • Critical thinking enables one to understand and evaluate the root causes of complex problems/issues and find a reasonable solution after considering (evaluating) all possible solutions. Hence, It is crucial for understanding and solving real-world problems/issues of the 21st-century.
  • It empowers to make quality and agile decisions in the face of uncertainty even with unreliable data and evidence and provides the ability to implement the decisions taking into account an assessment of possible outcomes and ways of avoiding potentially negative outcomes or at least lessening their impact. As a result, it leads to highly productive outcomes of the actions.

Strategic thinking:

In a fast-changing environment, with scarce skills and resources on one side and unpredictable changes on the other, a robust strategic vision based on foresight and resilience becomes a cornerstone for delivering outcomes.

Strategic thinking is the ability to know what we want to achieve and how to achieve it. It involves thinking about larger, macro issues, in contrast to the microfocus that many tend to take.

  • Strategic thinking provides the ability to define objectives and develop an action plan with goals broken down into tasks specifically measured in terms of timeline and resources. A clear, positive, and big enough vision inspires action and pulls in ideas, people, and other resources to make things happen.
  • It is the ability to understand the dynamic internal and external environment and its impact to help guide future direction, realize opportunities, and plans in place to deal with them. The agile response allows one to take advantage of opportunities and minimize the damage of unforeseen negative events. 

Innovative thinking:

Public service leaders require innovative thinking to face contemporary and emergent challenges such as inter-connected and diffused economic and social patterns, more complex problems/issues, blurred governance boundaries, new threat perceptions, and reduced trust in public action.

Innovative thinking is the ability to create more effective and novel solutions to persistent and new challenges, and the courage to try something new. Innovative thinking requires divergent thinking and convergent thinking and a stronger application of leadership competencies because in doing something innovative and which is different from the usual way of doing things, a person may encounter stronger resistance. But once, when innovation is implemented well, it becomes an independent and powerful force that propels the work forward.

  • Innovation tends to contain costs and maximize the relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact, and sustainability of “personalized” outcomes that address old and new needs in a more coordinated manner. Hence, it is an instrument that adds value to the life of people.
  • Innovation is a force that brings mobility within a stratified globe (social, economic, political, and gender inequalities) to create a more inclusive world. Innovation when disseminated effectively, is offering individuals access to opportunities that foster greater equality and an improvement in the quality of life.

Collaboration skills:

The need for public service to rely on effective collaboration within their organisation and with others in outside bodies has been steadily increasing for achieving organisational goals. Collaboration skills are essential to bring about and sustain mutually supportive working, but it is only possible if those in leadership positions understand why and how the critical barriers should be broken down. Those who wish to be truly effective in meeting goals must be able to work efficiently with both internal and external partners, who may make very different and challenging demands. 

Collaboration is to bring many different social worlds (ideas, people, and resources that would not bump into one another but could be very useful) together to focus on a shared goal.

  • Collaboration has distinct advantages over individual performance because it allows for: an effective division of labour; utilization of resources from different places and persons; the incorporation of knowledge, perspectives, and experiences from multiple sources; and enhanced creativity and quality of solutions stimulated by ideas of other group members.
  • Collaboration is crucial to increase social competency (e.g., conflict resolution, use of helping behaviours, and positive social interdependence). Social competency enables us to engage and interact effectively to make the world a better place by reducing the risk of behavioral and emotional problems.

Communication skills:

Every effort must be made to build confidence between the public administration, the citizenry at large, and the media. Individual citizens need to understand the services provided by administrations and the accountability standards being applied to civil servants. This will help to demystify the public sector while building up external respect and support for the continuing process of economic, social, and political transformation.

Communication skills are one of the most important 21st-century skills that allow us to understand and be understood by others. These skills include - communicating ideas to others effectively; actively listening in conversations; giving and receiving critical feedback; public speaking, etc. The reality of a world in rapid, constant evolution has put into perspective the strategic value of communication, especially the dissemination of information and sharing of knowledge.

  • It is communication as a deliberate intervention to affect social, political, and economic change that holds the most interesting possibilities. Communication can reveal people's underlying attitudes and traditional wisdom, help people to adapt their views and to acquire new knowledge and skills, and spread new social, political, and economic messages to large audiences.
  • Communication is central to broader empowerment practices through which people are able to arrive at their understanding of issues, consider and discuss ideas, negotiate, and engage in public debates at community and national levels.

How Higher-order skills are tested in the civil services examination?

Civil servants create, protect and positively impact public value. However, there is a growing concern that the context and conditions (i.e. 21st-century) in which the public sector operates are quickly changing, suggesting that public value can’t continue to be created in the same way as in the past. Today, civil servants are needed who have the leading skills of the 21st-century (Higher-order skills) to address increasingly complex problems/issues in increasingly pluralistic societies using new tools available to the government.

Consequently, the civil services examination increasingly emphasizes testing candidates’ Higher-order skills (i.e. 21st-century skills) to select the most suitable candidates for higher civil services. And, all the two stages of this exam (preliminary examination and main examination) are increasingly focused on higher-order questions. The higher-order questions are those questions that are specifically designed to test candidates’ Right Knowledge (depth of understanding of real-world experiences), Higher-order skills (core intellectual competencies), and Right Attitudes (spirit and in-depth interest in public service).

In the prelims exam, a variety of information, facts, statements, theories, concepts, etc. are deliberately included in the questions to test candidates’ critical thinking and strategic thinking mainly, but most students get confused to see so much information, facts, theories, and concepts in the exam paper and think that they should increase the ambit of their preparation to include these things to respond (to answer) correctly these types of question. However, these questions are easily solved by applying critical thinking and strategic thinking without any extra requirements of knowing many facts, information, theories, and concepts.

This is the reason that many students (those who apply their critical thinking and strategic thinking) are able to clear the prelims exam every time they appear in it without much struggle. While the others struggle to clear this exam every time no matter how many facts, information, theories, and concepts they are fluent in. 

The main (written) examination is an in-depth assessment of candidates’ Right Knowledge, Higher-order skills, and Right Attitudes, but there is an increased emphasis on testing candidates' Higher-order skills in this exam. Therefore, the nature of most questions is increasingly complex and based on real-world events, issues, problems, and crises. Generally, students find such questions difficult to understand and are not able to construct high-quality responses (answers) by simple recollection, pre-structured format, or reading the information from the text. And many a time, the question papers are made lengthy and unexpected to put students in unforeseen and challenging situations.

Understanding complex questions and constructing high-quality responses (answers) to real-world events, issues, problems, and crises in an unforeseen and challenging situation (i.e. in the exam) require Higher-order skills such as critical thinking, strategic thinking, innovative thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. The high-quality responses (answers) create a qualitative difference among students; therefore, the difference in marks obtained by them in this exam. The candidates who do not focus on developing their Higher-order skills during their preparation for the CSE, face difficulty constructing high-quality answers at the assessment time (in the exam) and end up getting low marks despite answering all questions in their best capacity.

Similarly, the interview stage of this exam increasingly emphasizes testing the candidate’ Higher-order abilities to assess his personal suitability for a career in public service. The personal suitability of a candidate is manifested in his statement of purpose (his reasons to pursue a career in public service) and intellectual identity (how he interprets and understands the world around him). The intellectual identity of a person is shaped by his Right Attitudes and dispositions, Higher-order skills (intellectual competencies/ mental qualities), Right Knowledge (depth of understanding of real-world experiences), and core values.

Therefore, to achieve their desired success in the civil services examination (i.e. to get success with a high rank in less time), candidates should focus on the development of their Higher-order skills by adopting the best practices of learning (such as active learning and reflective thinking, interaction with the real world, learning by doing and deliberate practices, etc.). The best practices will enable them to apply intellectual standards in their learning to develop Higher-order skills.

The ptsx perspective