Employers can't afford to take soft skills for granted

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
My colleague has a notice stuck on the wall behind his desk. I see it whenever I'm gazing straight ahead, searching for inspiration on what to do with Genna's gently-plagiarised outcome three, Thomas's non-attendance or the piece of halibut I bought for the evening meal. It reads: "You can make me go to college but you can't make me think."

It certainly makes me think. And I suspect it would make Bill Rammell think, too. As the English education minister with a lifelong-learning remit, he has been squirming, remember, because he has been accused (wrongly, he argues) of suggesting that vocational courses are more appropriate for student employability than ancient history or philosophy.

Vocational training, then, not thinking, is what's required today.

Training and Thinking. Thinking and Training. We seem to be stuck with that twosome, forever together and forever apart.

In FE, we have always had to prove that courses are worthwhile, that they equip learners for the jobs they seek. But whatever the vocational skills, employers have also wanted soft skills such as problem-solving, working with others and communication. We're now also asked to demonstrate where vocational courses add extra value to a learner's employability and in what ways skills are transferable. So yes, industry wants a trained employee, but it also wants a thinking employee who has been to finishing school.

So how do we do that? In gen-eral, soft skills are absorbed by our learners as they manage their learning experience with us. That's great.

Some courses demonstrate a learner has these skills by crediting embedded soft skills, such as working with others or problem- solving, or by offering discrete units such as communication.

There's an ever-present danger that these units become assessment-driven and, instead of learning how to think for themselves, learners are simply trained in how to deal with instruments of assessments. Yes, you can train a learner how to do well in restricted response-reading assessment but, whether that means he or she will be able to scan the web, analyse and summarise the findings for the boss, is another matter.

I sat through a seminar recently where a teacher explained how he made his pupils do a certain type of analysis over and over again and "trained" them how to do it. Fine for passing exams - sometimes - but how useful is that in terms of lifelong learning and employability, in terms of improving the ability to think?

It should come as no surprise then that, while exam results just get better and better, a recent study has shown that the intelligence of 11-year-olds has fallen by three years' worth in the past 20 years. "Children," say the experts, "are not thinking very well."

Well, they don't get much practice, do they? So often young learners who have come straight from school ask: "What will I put?" "Is it all right to do this?" and "Are you allowed to . . .?" Building up their confidence, helping them to feel in charge of their learning, takes time.

Vocational courses will need to guard very carefully those aspects that encourage learners to engage in problem-solving and team-working if the qualification is going to be of any long-term benefit to the learner and the employer. And we need to dispel the notion that vocational training means you don't have to think outside the box.

My young class in press and magazines has been exploring the concept of preferred reading. The idea that meaning is up for grabs, that they can be involved in debate, argument and discussion, was a little strange to them at first. But they're warming to it fast. And yes, they've been thinking very well.

Who knows? Maybe thinking will come back into the mainstream and not be confined to philosophy departments. How about a one-year Training in Thinking course? Then we could change that notice to: "We have ways of making you think."

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee college

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