The experts show us that the future of the economy and work will be wildly changed from the way it used to be. Technology, globalization, work environments and employment roles are all changing the way people will work in the future. Many of the jobs of the past are disappearing in front of our very eyes. So how do we prepare future generations for these huge changes? The answer is apparently soft skill education.
[See other articles I’ve written relating to the future of education: How to Prepare for the Future and Develop the Skills You Need and The Future of Education, Issues to be Considered.]
Soft Skills Education
The problem with the education system of the past:
“America’s system of education was built for an economy and a society that no longer exists. In the manufacturing and agrarian economies that existed 50 years ago, it was enough to master the “Three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic). In the modern “flat world,” the “Three Rs” simply aren’t enough. If today’s students want to compete in this global society, however, they must also be proficient communicators, creators, critical thinkers, and collaborators (the “Four Cs”).”National education Association
As most of the worlds education systems follow a similar approach to the American system, it’s fair to assume that this is a global issue for education.
So the big problem is the changing nature of work in the future. And so education needs to change. And the framework that has been offered, the one we will focus on today, is the 4C’s approach.
The 4C’s is a great, simple framework that helps us to focus on these soft skills.
What are the 4C’s of Soft Skills Education?
In no particular order, the 4C’s are:
- Critical thinking
These are the soft skills. The skills that relate to human agency in a technological and mechanical and ever changing economy. These are the skills that will still be in need, even as the machines take over all our other standard jobs.
Now I believe teachers all over the world already focus on these areas. We know the needs of our students and we are doing our best to prepare them, to a degree.
The degree is the point that the 4C’s model emphasizes and it is the point for us to reflect on now.
To what degree are we engaging in soft skills education?
- Are we explicit about these things?
- Do we teach them explicitly as skills?
- Are we evaluating these skills?
- Do students self and peer evaluate these skills?
- Have students internalized these skills and made them into habits?
Degree of Soft Skills Education:
I believe teachers already aim to cover these skills, but it’s the degree to which we do them explicitly that I believe we need to be doing a bit more effectively.
So let’s look at the areas we, and our children, and younger generations, need to know in order to be empowered and productive citizens of the not too distant future.
Soft Skills Education: What are the 4 C’s
1. Critical Thinking
The soft skills advocates argue for the importance of critical thinking. And you don’t need to be too much of a critical thinker to see how critical, critical thinking is. What is it? Well, there are many definitions, but it basically boils down to our ability to evaluate and analyze information, and then to apply our thought to solving problems.
So, this one is obvious. Schools teach critical thinking. Once upon a time they taught rote learning and regurgitation, but I can’t think of any schools today that still follows that approach. Today’s schools are looking to impart a critical mindset on students and to empower them to question, evaluate, analyze and solve problems. (Some better than others, some with more resources than others, but overall this is the contemporary approach.)
What’s wrong with our current approach?
So, as stated, I believe we all aim for critical thinking. That is what education is about. It’s about thinking and evaluating information, synthesizing that information and building our own personal, and/or shared, view on the world.
And for many, the way we teach it is effective; many fine young thinkers exit high school every year and go off and become fine well developed contributors in society.
However, for many, that critical thinking is not as well developed.
Lack of Critical Thinking
I see a serious need for critical thinking to become a core of the curriculum. How many students just go along with Wikipedia? How many go with the first search on Google? What number are simply swept along by what the algorithm suggests? Can we count how many blindly accept the views of the popular crowd? How many may think differently but are still well under the sway of peer pressure? What percentage of students really think about the big issues of the world and their responsibility as part of the world? How many students are truly thoughtful about what they want to achieve in life; thoughtful about what the world needs; and so on and so on.
And then there is critical thinking in communication. I think here, especially here, we can see how one ill conceived comment or email can cause severe consequences because something was taken wildly out of context.
Further, how often do we really get students to be critical about their collaborations with others? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some of us do very good things to get students to evaluate their work in class? But are we preparing our students to be able to rate themselves as good team members? Are our students able to clearly and concisely tell us what makes a good team player and realistically evaluate their level of efficacy?
That’s a lot of questions. For me, and for many I’ve seen, really good education on self-evaluation, self-development, professional development, emotional development, practical psychology; the whole range of personal critical thinking, is somewhat lacking.
The key point of the 4C’s approach is to see critical thinking as a skill and to view it in relation to the other core skills – critical and creative, critical communication and critical collaboration.
So how do we do this?
There are many ways to teach this approach to critical thinking in the classroom.
- we want to set up a teaching environment that explicitly acknowledges critical thinking as a skill; students need to know it is a goal.
- We need to teach it explicitly as a skill; students need to know what makes up critical thinking and know that they are able to improve their critical thinking.
- We need to explicitly evaluate critical thinking and provide actionable feedback to students.
- We need to report on their critical thinking so that they can receive further support outside the classroom.
We will cover more on the practicalities of this in the near future, but for those desperate to set themselves and their kids on the right track, please follow the link to The National Education Association, for some great advice.
Collaboration is basically the ability to work together, be flexible, take responsibility and be effective as part of a team or organization.
This is becoming more important than ever. Major projects both locally and globally are being led by groups that are very fluid and flexible. Take the example of global collaborations like Wikipedia. This giant organization and resource is produced and run by a very fluid and flexible global “team”.
And organizations today, schools, companies, teams, are becoming a lot more fluid and flexible in the management and running of operations.
Our ability to form productive working relations, quickly and effectively, will be a major skill set required now and in the future.
The importance and benefits of collaboration can be summed up nicely as follows:
Author James Surowiecki, … , explains how we use the “wisdom of crowds” in the new economy by saying that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.National Education Association
So what do we mean by collaboration? What are we actually teaching?
- working cohesively,
- Interpersonal skills,
- setting group goals,
- developing synergy,
- establishing roles,
- evaluating strengths and weaknesses
- Conflict resolution
- And we could go on …
So do we actually teach these skills?
How much time do we spend teaching students how to build a team, how to develop and improve team dynamics, and how to develop leadership and responsibility and all those things that go with building a cohesive unit out of individuals?
My guess, and maybe this is just my confession, but my guess is we develop group projects and then think of some way of grouping students, or even just let them choose their own groups, and let them learn from experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but it is a waste of a valuable learning experience.
The question we want to look at, is how do we develop these things within the constraints of the classroom and in a way that supports our regular teaching programs?
We will discuss the actual processes of these very soon, but again, we need to:
- set up a teaching environment that explicitly acknowledges collaboration as a skill; students need to know it is a goal.
- We need to teach it explicitly as a skill; students need to know what makes up collaboration and know that they are able to improve their ability to collaborate.
- We need to explicitly evaluate collaboration and provide actionable feedback to students.
- We need to report on their ability to collaborate so that they can receive further support outside the classroom.
In today’s world of global competition and task automation, innovative capacity and a creative spirit are fast becoming requirements for personal and professional success. ((https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf)
And of course schools these days foster a creative approach. So, what’s wrong with our current approach?
- Do students have a clear idea of what creativity is?
- Do they know how creativity is useful and applicable to the service of others?
- Can they evaluate their creativity?
- Do they know how to improve creativity?
- Is it taught as a unified skill?
- Is it assessed and rewarded as a unified skill that clearly identifies a student’s ability to be creative in the service of teams, work, analytically, critically?
- And so on …
So What’s Missing
My feeling is that a lot of our assessments are very prescribed, so as to ease the stress caused by the difficulty to be creative. By which I mean, we give students very clear, step by step frameworks. A lot of the time students are merely filling in gaps and not creatively engaging with the question of how to approach a problem of task.
I also feel creativity is often considered a given; that a student has it of not and then they use it to paint, draw, write, speak or otherwise perform in interesting ways.
Do we ever have the instruction that creativity is a necessary skill for all of us, here’s how you use it, here’s how you develop it and here’s how we will improve your creativity over the years of education? From experience, I don’t think that happens in a lot of schools.
The 4C’s Solution
- we need to set up a teaching environment that explicitly acknowledges creativity as a skill; students need to know it is a goal.
- We need to teach it explicitly as a skill; students need to know what makes up creativity and know that they are able to improve their creativity.
- We need to explicitly evaluate creativity and provide actionable feedback to students.
- We need to report on their creativity so that they can receive further support outside the classroom.
Expressing thoughts clearly, crisply articulating opinions, communicating coherent instructions, motivating others through powerful speech—these skills have always been valued in the workplace and in public life. But in the 21st century, these skills have been transformed and are even more important today.National Education Association
More than ever, critical communication skills are needed.
- Firstly, to evaluate the mountains of information we are bombarded with every minute of the waking day.
- We need to be able to decipher the meaning of so many different discourses vying for our attention.
- We must also be able to evaluate the credibility of communication.
- And we need to be able to reply with accurate and well considered communications of our own.
To make things more difficult, we now also need to understand the importance of recognizing global communication. Now business and all areas of world trade and so much more are globalized. We are communicating on a global level with a myriad of different languages and cultures in the mix.
All of this, in an ever more competitive, fluid and flexible service focused economy.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of communication.
And so, we all know the importance of communication for the modern economy. And we obviously teach this a lot. But do we actually get students to internalize good communicative processes. I mean, I see a lot of our students practice listening for exam situations, and practice speaking for exams, and read to absorb information, and write to the outline so they pass the test.
However, when it comes to actually communicating their thoughts and ideas clearly to each other, or conceptualizing a real audience, or using communicative skills to invoke a logical, social, emotional response, I believe students are not fully engaged.
And when it comes to communication as part of work and collaboration, I see a lot of dominant voices simply commanding and quiet voices following. Are we teaching the dominant speakers how to listen effectively? Are we teaching the quiet speakers how to find their voice and take responsibility for their own ideas and contribution to the problem?
I think maybe not.
And so, the 4C’s Solution once again:
- we need to set up a teaching environment that explicitly acknowledges communication as a skill; students need to know it is a goal. (Not simply listening, reading, speaking and writing – but understanding, critically evaluating and masterfully communicating.)
- We need to teach it explicitly as a skill; students need to know what makes up communication, beyond the basics, and know that they are able to improve their communication, and know that they really need to.
- We need to explicitly evaluate communication, not just in English and languages, and again not on a basic level, but explicitly, while also providing actionable feedback to students.
- We need to report on their communication so that students can receive further support outside the classroom.
Final Thoughts on Soft Skills Education
The problem is the degree to which we teach soft skills education.
We all do this stuff to a degree – I have no doubt. However, we really should be considering these capabilities as core skills. Students should know how they rate in terms of critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration – and they should absolutely know how they can develop in these areas.
Related to these areas are resilience, leadership, flexibility and so much more. But to start, the 4 C’s are a good framework that we can use to apply to our everyday teaching.
And as we here are aided with the simplicity of a framework – I believe it is important that we have further frameworks that we, and our students, can apply to each of these areas.
So how do we establish frameworks and develop activities we can use regularly in the class?
In future, we will look at activities we can use as a general practice so that we can start to bring the 4 C’s more explicitly and effectively into the classroom, and into the lives of our students.
Mission to Success
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All the best, and remember to keep striving for success.