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How to give your students vital lifelong 'soft skills'

Schools need to equip young people with the 'soft skills' required for the future workplace, explains Clare Cook

Clare Cook

How schools can equip students with 'soft skills' for the future world of work

Look around your class: how resilient are the pupils sitting in front of you? How creative are they? How good are they at thinking critically? And at solving problems? These answers will, of course, vary from student to student. 

Perhaps the more important questions should be: do you give these skills particular emphasis? Do you encourage students to develop them? And do you embed them into your everyday teaching? 

According to the World Economic Forum, the answer to all three questions should be yes. Last October, it published a list of the top skills needed globally by 2025. This included resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.

But there’s a problem: the Education Commission has estimated that by 2030 more than half of the world’s children and young people will not have the skills or qualifications necessary to participate in the emerging global workforce. 


Further reading: Building a case for a hands-on approach to learning

Related: Stem learning has a bright future and an important past

In case you missed it: Purposeful play can boost engagement in hybrid learning


That’s not to say that these skills are overlooked in our schools: many teachers will include them in their lessons without even realising it. Indeed, in early years settings, these skills are fostered daily through purposeful play activities. But, as the rapid change in the world of work accelerates even further as we recover from the pandemic, is it time that teachers made a conscious effort to foster these skills

Chris Wilde, head of digital technology and computer science at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, says “yes”.

'Soft skills': Giving school pupils lifelong skills for the future world of work

“We’ve really started to look at how we can embed lifelong skills across the curriculum and across all years, so regardless of what challenges the pupils face in the future, they have the resilience and the ability to solve problems,” he says. 

“We’re a 7-18 school, and that’s our philosophy for all of our children. It’s a manifesto around cultivating lifelong skills in the pupil so that regardless of where they go, and what they decide to do, or how the world changes in the next 10 to 15 years, they have the skills to be able to deal with it. I don't think just having effective knowledge recall is going to help them face the world they will encounter.” 

Kimberly Elms, principal of Livingstone Academy, in Bournemouth, agrees: “Lifelong skills are absolutely transformational. For example, having the ability, as a young person, to be able to start a conversation with people that you might not know but might be in a certain professional domain, to be able to advocate and articulate, is transformational and the opportunities that can come to you by having those types of skills are fundamentally what makes the difference between someone who works for a living and a person who has career opportunities.” 

The pandemic has brought the importance of skills into sharp focus, particularly for the students whose family lives were negatively impacted, she adds: “Many families had a change in employment, their home status and residency, and for these students, it didn’t increase their resiliency at all; instead it negatively impacted their trust in the adults and the world around them to be predictable and take care of them.”

Wilde, however, says some pupils’ skills have actually been enhanced: “We are seeing a shift in the ability and resilience of the pupils in the last two to three years: and obviously, they needed it, because in the last few years they've been facing situations that they’ve never seen before," he says.

The picture is complex but what is obvious is that throughout their lives, young people will need to utilise these lifelong skills to meet whatever challenges they may face. So how should teachers go about developing these skills in students? Do they need to be in standalone lessons? Or embedded in the existing curriculum?

It’s definitely the latter, says Wilde. “If someone comes into our classroom and says the computer doesn't work, we say, 'OK, well you need to fix it.' To begin with, they are a bit uncertain, but they soon realise they learn better by doing it themselves. We have a rule in the class which says they can help other pupils but they aren’t allowed to touch their machinery, because if you take their mouse, and do it for them, how will they learn?”

This hands-on learning approach, he explains, works particularly well in terms of creativity, problem-solving, independent thought and resilience. 

“Hands-on learning works really well, because it allows pupils to develop their own ideas and go off in their own direction. We give them problems to solve, but we don’t tell them how to solve them: we allow them to go off on different tangents and build their own ideas,” he says. 

“It’s a design process: they come up with an idea, see if it works and if it doesn't work, then they have to develop that idea to come up with another one. It allows them to build their own imagination: they revisit their idea, repurpose it and make it better, rather than regurgitating a teacher's method.” 

Elms agrees and says that hands-on learning is brilliant because it can mirror real life, outside of the classroom.

“Lifelong skills can't be measured by knowledge and recall; you can’t learn to be creative or critical unless you’re applying it to something that is real life. We spend a lot of time designing explicit learning experiences for that purpose, so that we always take a piece of knowledge and give them an opportunity to play around with it.

“We say, 'What if we changed a piece of this information?' or, 'What could we change in order to get a different outcome?' and that's where the critical and creative thinking aspect comes to life for these kids.”

A cross-curricular approach

The current cohort of Year 7s at Livingstone, for example, are working on a project around designing an accessible beach hut. They will look at space and ratio during maths lessons, the appearance of the hut in art, and ensure it is environmentally sustainable in science. Elms believed this type of cross-curricular approach is crucial. 

“All of these skills are difficult to teach because they are always anchored in another context. They need to be embedded in a bigger piece of practical learning,” says Elms.

At the Royal Grammar School, students in Years 7, 8 and 9 are taught predominantly through hands-on project work set each term. Currently, the Year 8s are building a video game, and Year 9 are completing FIRST® LEGO® League, whereby they build robots out of LEGO® Education sets and then put the robots through their paces attempting an assault course. 

Not only are the projects extremely practical and a brilliant way to foster lifelong skills, they are fun, says Wilde: “It’s like teaching them how to perform a magic trick. They become so focused on perfecting the algorithm for the magic trick that they forget they are learning complex mathematical functions. If we make it so much fun that they just love the activity, then the learning happens, and they don't even realise.” 

Being proactive about teaching these lifelong skills is no easy feat – they’re hard to measure, especially when so much focus is on exam results, stresses Elms. 

“These skills are by nature hard to teach – and although teachers understand their importance, there’s not a huge amount about how we teach them in a way which allows us to maintain integrity to the tests – because we're all under the gun to also produce certain levels of GCSE results,” says Elms. “If we really want to get serious about lifelong skills, then we need to align the benchmarking system which goes along with it.”

And so, while teachers can utilise hands-on learning to foster these skills in their students, there is another part to the story. If we want to turn the tide on the warning from the Education Commission – that by 2030, our children won’t have skills needed to participate in the emerging global workforce – perhaps lifelong skills need to be put firmly at the centre of schools and taught in practical way that sticks.

Find more information, including resources to inspire your students, at LEGOeducation.com/LearningSystem

 

Clare Cook

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