IN her address to Saint Lucia’s Parliament on the occasion of the Second Session of the Eleventh Parliament, Her Excellency Dame PearletteLouisy asserted that, “Saint Lucia’s education system must equip our citizens with the requisite skills for gainful employment.”
Her Excellency went on to declare that “An Education for Democratic Citizenship programme focusing on the soft skills and on national pride will be introduced into the curricula of primary and secondary schools at the beginning of the new academic year in September 2017. Modules have already been developed and the training of teachers in that regard is ongoing.”
Upon hearing that news, I was combusted with delight as I reached for my pen and ruminated on the series of articles I’ve written expounding the virtues of social values and soft skills (often overlooked in education policy), and espousing the view that soft skills have become the new “hard skills” in a world of business characterized by complex interpersonal and social problems. The Governor General’s welcome declaration also acknowledges the fact that employers are now looking for people who can do more than just perform a set of technical tasks.
As soft skills (particularly problem solving and learning willingness) become the deal breaker in many of today’s hiring decisions, the term “literacy” will constantly be redefined in an age of knowledge and information, and the unspoken assumptions of education policy will be challenged at every technological turn. As the American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler instructs us: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, relearn and unlearn.” Most strikingly, the digital information zeitgeist has begun, to all intents and purposes, to redefine what it really means to be an “educated person”.
In the book, “Success in the Information Age: A Paradigm Shift”, the American Professor William G. Huitt summarized the major trends and megatrends associated with the Information Age and their implications for preparing children and youth for the future: “We are undergoing the most significant change ever experienced in human history. We have moved from the agricultural age through the industrial age and into the information age in a span of just 100 to 200 years. We have lived most of our human history in the hunter/gatherer age. In that environment, the person with the best way to kill an animal or select the correct items to eat was most successful; in the agriculture age, the person with the most land and best agricultural machinery was most successful; and in the industrial age the person with the best manufacturing process or the most capital was most successful. Who will be most successful in the information age?”
Alvin Toffler believes it will be the individual, group, community, society, or nation that has access to information and that has the interpersonal ability to process and socialize it. He states that knowledge and learning capacity are the central aspects of today’s service-based and talent-intensive economies.
Some readers will recall that a year ago I published an article in this newspaper on the transformational potential of education policy. I argued that Saint Lucia’s system of education and training is woefully inadequate in the new global order, and that the education curricula should have greater global scope and dimension. Further, I urged our educators and policymakers to shape up by producing the right combination of talent in preparation for what the future proclaims as a complete transformation of motive rather than a straightforward substitution of activity. An important assertion made was that as our young people enter the workforce, the ability to deal with complex and often ambiguous information will be more important than simply knowing a lot of facts or accumulating knowledge.
Mindful of the pernicious effects of technology and social media when used inappropriately, new approaches and pedagogical designs must be explored to engage students in complex interactions that require a high level of judgment and thereby set the stage to rethink ideas that had not been questioned before. Countries like Finland and South Korea have demonstrated time and again that it’s not necessarily technical knowledge that is the key to competitive advantage, but imaginative and lateral thinking. Hence, the educational path we are walking is not well marked and this will make it difficult for us to traverse the information superhighway.
So what should education look like in this Age of Information? How do you recognize an educated person today? Should we only be interested in translating technical proficiency into economic output? I believe education today should be strategically tailored to help students achieve research efficiency and impart skills to facilitate information filtration.
For the educated, educational and social informatics is like a second sun. Yet that sun doesn’t seem to shine so brightly in many areas of the high-tech and knowledge economy. I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the inverse relationship between technology and soft skills. The information superhighway seemed to have placed technical skills on a pedestal, at the expense of the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. In a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience, well-rounded professionals with effective communication and presentation skills are few and far between.
The ironic thing about the lack of strong communication skills among IT and other knowledge workers is the fact that it’s the one field where communication is so important. In order to counteract the information overload unleashed by the digital age, we’ll need to employ more strategic soft skills and critical thinking to help us cut through the data clutter, present information with more clarity and make clearer decisions and choices.
So as young people move toward lives in the professional world, they have new soft skills to keep in mind. I believe some of us are so focused on one thing, such as getting our degree, that it comes as no surprise when we are no good at team activities, organization, self- management, social interaction and communication, after leaving university. There have always been — and will always be — certain soft skills, like emotional intelligence and compensation strategies, that people will need to master in the professional world. Industry leaders agree there is a growing need for these essential soft skills, and students entering the workforce who can demonstrate strong personal and social competence have a huge competitive advantage in a dynamic, data-centric and talent-intensive economy.
As someone who understands the need for a good balance between technology, social competence and traditional educational methods, I’ll be glad to say good riddance to any education culture that glorifies technical know-how at the expense of an education coated in soft skills.
For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com. Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.