Nothing soft about ‘soft skills’

By Greg Whitby, 13 June 2018
Greg Whitby AM is Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta.

 

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

There is a view among some that Australian students are falling behind because schools are too focused on teaching what are sometimes referred  to ‘soft-skills’ like creativity and collaboration. Since when did deep thinking, being able to work with others and imagination ever become ‘soft’? In fact, these are the skills that are young people need for than ever.

It always concerns me whenever I hear comparison between teaching soft-skills and the need to teach ‘hard’ skills like English, maths and science. These are not ‘skills’, they are subject disciplines out of which students acquire literacy, numeracy and scientific reasoning.

Soft skills need to be cultivated. Good teachers have always been able to use the content of their lessons to develop their students’ creativity, critical thinking and communication. Out of the experience of learning music, art, history or maths, students learn to do new things with sounds, images and words, and solve problems.

To dismiss the importance of ‘soft skills’ or to dismiss them as education fads is to not understand what good teaching is about. Good teachers not only impart knowledge but they also teach their students how to learn, how to think critically, how to work together and how to be good communicators.

Debates about whether ‘subjects’ are more important than ‘skills’ is a waste of time. Instead, we need to acknowledge that subjects open the door to developing all kinds of necessary skills that young people need today more than ever.

American physicist Richard Feynman won a Nobel prize for his work in 1965. Feynman believed there was a big difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something. We need our young people to know more than just the names of things. We need them to be the change-makers. This will mean using knowledge in new ways, taking ideas further than they have been taken before (and sometimes rejecting them outright) and always, always questioning. And it is the role of schools to create environments for this to happen.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

 

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