Soft Skills in Today’s Teaching: A Brief Reflection
By Dr Fraño Paukner Nogués
In 2007, a report published by McKinsey (How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top) made clear that teachers are the guarantee of education quality and equity. According to the report, teachers hold the key to improving education, positing three key statements which underline this:
1. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
2. The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.
3. Achieving universally high outcomes is only possible by putting in place mechanisms to ensure that schools deliver high-quality instruction to every child.
Let us reflect on these three statements, especially the last two. Any teacher who wants to do a good job must have skills to deliver practice that incorporates empathy, dialogue, encouragement, etc. These are soft skills, defined as interpersonal abilities to interact and succeed in society. The argument I would like to follow in this discussion understands classroom work as a team effort, a form of teamwork. The critical tradition, led especially by Carr and Kemmis (1988), insists on seeing education as a way to think, reflect and, crucially, change education for the sake of a better society. These changes are made by teaching in such a way that the teacher learns and the students teach. Therefore, this paradigm pursues the idea that people involved in classroom work must form a small society in anticipation of or as a rehearsal for wider society. People must talk, interact, discuss, negotiate, share and have a sense of mutual commitment.
Hard skills, defined as the skills required for success in employment are also necessary but on a different level. I picture soft skills as forming the base, the foundation of education. I think one of the greatest examples of this is Paulo Freire’s view of education as issue making.
Freire thinks that real education is extremely demanding. Human promotion overcoming status quo through education is the mother of all battles. One of these main demands is to conceive of the pedagogical frame as a space for inquiry and issue making. In this way, it is possible to break free from “banking education” towards education as a way to read the world.
I think it is possible to develop, step by step, this attitude but it is difficult to design a process for paradigm change. The “banking paradigm” is that in which the students (future workers) receive as a deposit the knowledge they need to work for society, which is later recouped through employment. The emancipation paradigm, on the other hand, sees every student as a promise of freedom, creativity and change. The lingering influence of the banking paradigm has shaped teacher training such that it produces teachers who are, much of the time, defenders of the status quo. This occurs when teacher training is focused solely on achieving hard skills. On the other hand, according to Freire, what a teacher needs to enact the critical paradigm is only soft skills: these teachers need understanding, comprehension, empathy, dialogue; they need to be open minded, inclusive, respectful, honest and moral. According to the ancient Greeks, this is the origin of reflective and critical thinking, the base of democratic society, which is made up of individuals with good civic skills. These civic skills represent soft skills in a political context, but are soft skills nonetheless.
Besides understanding the advantages of pursuing soft skills in teacher training, it is necessary to think about the problems involved in emphasising hard skills in teacher training. Teachers with only hard skills would be technicians (Giroux and McLaren, 1988) able to apply others’ ideas but incapable of creating their own ways of teaching. This is therefore a very dangerous set of skills to focus on because a technical approach - no matter how socially and economically important - is incompatible with critical thinking and teaching, and depends on working with ideas produced by others.
Professionals, especially teachers, must create knowledge by reflecting on culture and practice and by sharing knowledge in conversational settings. At the core of this process are human relations such as conversation, teamwork, sharing knowledge, teaching, learning: all based on soft skills.
The last idea I would like to address is soft skills as a cultural feature. Culture is a particular way of living, a way of facing the world. To live and prosper in a given culture, a person must do a lot of things related to, mainly, human relations. Civic life in modern societies consists of human interactions which, to be meaningful and effective, must be based on values and principles related to a kind of general ethics that correspond to soft values such as loyalty, truthfulness, friendship and commitment.
It would be hard to conceive of a teacher with no commitment to forming good citizens or building a good society based on justice and equity. Therefore, teachers hold an additional responsibility as the custodians of values and principles that have to be passed on in the form of soft skills. Today’s teachers need to be trained in soft skills, acquire them, teach them and live and let live according to them. Soft skills are the future of teaching.
CARR, Wilfred; KEMMIS, Stephen (1988) TEORIA CRÍTICA DE LA ENSEÑANZA. Ediciones Martínez Roca, Barcelona.
GIROUX, Henry; MC LAREN, Peter (1998) SOCIEDAD, CULTURA Y EDUCACIÓN. Miño y Dávila, Madrid.
Dr Nogués is an Associate Professor and Researcher at the Universidad Catolica del Maule (Chile). If you have questions or comments about his contribution, you can contact Dr Nogués via his profile page or get in touch with the EPPE Network team via email to Twitter.