We need to talk about C21st soft skills
Refocusing the debate as A-Level results are released.
First published on 15 August, 2019
Today, teenagers up and down the UK are ripping open envelopes with bated breath. The contents will open some doors and close others. They will dictate who goes to the top tier of universities and who doesn’t. They mark the final round of relentless, decade-long testing which we put our young people through from an early age and by which we hold great stock. They also mark that annual point when widespread criticism of the system and concerns over the standards numbers and letters are supposed to represent gathers pace.
The ‘C21st soft skill’ narrative
In recent years, this debate has taken on a further dimension: the question of whether our school system and the rounds of exams which prop it up truly prepare the next generation for life in C21st society. Reference is made to the oft quoted and seemingly amorphous body of C21st soft skills which includes in its midst ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’. We are living, so the narrative goes, on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution. We are staring down the threat of mass technological unemployment whose effects will be keenly felt across demographics and continents for years to come. To mitigate against this, we need an overhaul of our education system as we know it, and quickly.
It’s a compelling story, and one which I was sucked into. It provides the impetus for a real call to arms and can quickly fire up the next person who cares about education. As I started to add another educational hat to the mix when starting to dip my toe into the EdTech world earlier this year, I couldn’t believe what I was reading and hearing in certain quarters. I knew that there might be room for change and a need to refocus on deep skill development, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I started to readily consume the more sensational output and to regurgitate it all in my own presentation of the status quo. Imagine my surprise when, on speaking to those still working at the forefront of education, I discovered that this narrative hadn’t really trickled down. Gosh, I thought, there really is an issue with the divorce between what happens in schools and what is happening in reality.
But there lay my misconception. Going by the proverbial smoke and fire, there was some ‘truth’ in the broad brushstroke narratives I had taken on board, but this wasn’t really reality. There’s no doubt that society is changing, and rapidly. However, societal shifts are no new thing, nor is the concomitant need to think differently about how we approach education and skill development. Automation and the quickening pace of artificial intelligence capabilities does mean that certain jobs might become relics, much like what happened to coopers seventy years or so back. But it also means that new jobs will be created, jobs that – without wishing to return to the hackneyed narrative outlined above – we don’t even know about as yet. The next transformation in the workplace will indeed require a certain skillset. But, to agree with others who are now stepping forward in an endeavour to make the education debate more grounded and less heady, these aren’t really C21st skills per se, nor are they ’soft’; they are essential, foundational skills that we should always have been teaching and which are already seeing more than the light of day in lots of places up and down the land. Isn’t creativity what is engendered in those drama, art and music lessons? And doesn’t critical thinking and the ability to judge upon sound evidence lie at the heart of scientific enquiry?
The link to critical literacy
I have been thinking more about this narrative in relation to deep, everyday critical literacy and the ability to read between the lines of any content and feel empowered to make informed, independent decisions. This is without doubt a skill that is sorely needed in our era of mass information and rising information warfare. But it isn’t anything new. Focus on the granular detail of text or ‘close reading’ has been with us for a good century and is now a naturalised skill amongst literary critics. The step away from engaging deeply with only the pedestal-positioned canon and instead seeing text within its socio-cultural context also has a reasonable lineage of around 30 years. What is missing is simply the link between the common classroom activity in an English or History lesson and how we encourage young people to engage with media outside the school perimeter. In essence, in the case of critical literacy, we aren’t really speaking about a C21st soft skill but rather about how we raise the value this skill, which is already embedded within the education system, could very meaningfully deliver in our C21st context. We don’t need an overhaul but underpinning of what we have. And this should come from the ground up. It’s a sobering thought and much more manageable.
To come back to the events of today, whatever that envelope holds for those many anxious recipients, I hope at least that they will be heartened by the thought that the studying and the gruelling exam period wasn’t all for nothing; that they can reflect upon the lifelong skills they have started to develop at school. Meanwhile, let us, the education community, focus on ensuring lifelong returns can be had as a result of the deep investment of time and effort in education, however this is fleetingly represented by numbers and letters.