The School Doctor: The not-so-hard truth about soft skills

In his latest post, the School Doctor discusses the realities of soft skills…

I don’t know how I missed it – perhaps I was distracted by all the tinsel and mulled wine – but just before Christmas, to quite some fanfare Cathy N. Davidson released her new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. The reason for the fanfare was Davidson’s challenging conclusions about the importance and impact of STEM education, and her use of Google’s own research to query our current fetishisation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math(s). Davidson summarised her findings in The Washington Post in December 2017: ‘The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students’.

The current thinking, Davidson explains, is that young people are being told by educators – and especially parents – that the future is in technology, so their present education should be in the ‘hard skills’ related to that technology. Once they have completed their extremely expensive education, these pupils will be ready to join the well-paid technological workforce. This is an approach that could be summarised as ‘two-dimensional thinking meets three-dimensional printing’.

Indeed, Davidson uses Google’s Project Oxygen – a study of the company’s hiring, retention and promotion data – to blow the STEM hypothesis out of the water. Based on Project Oxygen’s data analysis, Google listed the top eight most important qualities in their employees: ‘being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas’. The hard STEM knowledge touted by parents (‘Do you ever want to get a job?!‘) came in eighth. Another Google initiative, Project Aristotle, which analysed the qualities of their most productive and inventive teams, reached a similar conclusion: the most effective teams embraced ‘equality, generosity, curiosity towards the ideas of teammates, empathy, emotional intelligence, and emotional safety’. They weren’t all staffed by the whizziest of STEM whiz-kids.

Davidson’s conclusions are that such skills can be developed across the curriculum: in the library as well as the lab. Non-STEM practitioners are dancing a little jig at this news. So long cast as intellectual pariahs and parasites by the uber-utilitarian lobby, literary critics, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and their book-wielding buddies, are fighting back. ‘Aha!’, they whisper quietly among the library shelves, ‘we provide all those soft skills that are so useful to big-name employers; we aren’t just delaying our barista career for four years by investigating John Milton’s use of the comma’.

Of course, this has real impact on the school environment, within which we are constantly trying to get the right balance between STEM and the arts/humanities, and which continues to provide a battleground for the skills versus content debate. It has never helped that each side in the debate is easily caricatured: skills-driven hippies versus content-focused Gradgrinds. It is perfectly possible to navigate a middle way between the two: content provides the raw material through which skills are developed. Google’s leaders would not be too happy, I suspect, if their employees knew nothing at all about computers, but were extremely good at empathising and collaborating over, well, nothing. (Yes, ironically enough content can be Googled, but I can’t really imagine a world in which every intellectual exchange has to be delayed by recourse to a search engine.) Equally, it’s all very well excelling at one particular area of knowledge, if that knowledge can’t be effectively transmitted to, and built upon, by others. Or if that knowledge is used as a weapon – see Davidson’s point about ’emotional safety’ above.

Rethinking our approach to STEM should not reduce the important we place on it. Economies – futures – depend on being a key player in this market. But we should take a more subtle approach to how we might excel within it, how the best ideas might be generated, how we create the next generations of STEM leaders and practitioners, and what other beneficial contributors to our lives might sit alongside it. Excellent subject knowledge will no doubt have its place, but the most effective use of subject knowledge will come through its effective deployment. The skills that can be honed across the curriculum may very well aid in this effective deployment. Building walls between disciplines, or groups of disciplines, reduces dialogue and the effective transmission of skills and ideas. Don’t scoff at the humanities or arts student pursuing their interests or passions – the way they are using their brains may soon be of use to you in Silicon Valley, and they may just be your next CEO.


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