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Opening schools to soft skills

What skills are needed for young people to play a full role in society and exercise their rights and duties as a citizen...in relationship with the use of ICTs? Such was the question asked in the fourth workshop at this year's EMINENT (Expert Meeting of International and National Education Networks) held in Lisbon and organised by the European Schoolnet (EUN).

The question raised in the workshop implies a certain number of underlying premises that it might be worthwhile having a closer look at. For example, that it is desirable for young people to play a full role in society. One doesn't say what a "full" role is, but in suggesting that there are rights and duties that young people as citizens should exercise, there is a hint at what that "full" role might be. It links aspirations about active citizenship and social cohesion with hopes placed in the use of ICTs. Both are central themes within European Schoolnet. The question also assumes that to be able to fulfil such an active role in society, young people need to acquire skills. Which in turn - given the context of the conference related to institutionalised education systems - implies that 1) they don't yet have those skills and 2) those skills can be taught. Let's concentrate on the second point.

All that can be learnt doesn't necessarily need to be taught ... and possibly shouldn't be. Imagine schools trying to teach babies and little children to walk and talk! The question as to whether or not teaching is appropriate to learning is particularly pertinenet when it comes to talking of the need to acquire so-called social skills. Contrary to learning to walk and talk, it would seem that certain social skills don't automatically get picked up in the current everyday pursuits of young people. This not doubt points to the shortcomings in the role and activities of young people in modern society. But does it imply that such skills should or could be taught in the institutionalised context we call school?

What sort of skills are we talking about? The mention of rights and responsibilities in the question raised during the workshop might lead to some confusion between the acquisition of socially acceptable behaviour and the need to learn social skills. Although the two may well be related, in this text, as during the workshop, we will concentrate on the second, in particular, those skills related to exchange and collaboration at a distance over the Internet. Such "soft" skills include mentoring, conflict resolution, group animation, facilitating learning, running meetings and discussions and managing projects as well as expressing ideas in writing and taking part in written exchanges.

But can such skills be learnt in the current teaching context? One might argue, as do the social constructivists, that social skills can only be satisfactorily learnt through socially meaningful activities. Unfortunately, the traditional teaching context sets itself outside the main stream of life, outside the hustle and bustle of the local community. Some of the underlying premises of institutionally-based teaching are that it can best take place in a specifically designed place, at specific times with experts specialised in teaching using carefully selected, partly pre-digested material, according to a predetermined path. The result of this perspective with respect to learning is that the context created for teaching bears little resemblance to life in the rest of the world. Conscientious teachers are obliged to make considerable efforts to try to bring life and meaning back into teaching by using role play, simulations and other devices and means. The difficulty with teaching social skills is partly due to the artificial nature of the classroom context.

It is here that those teachers who feel the need to break out of what they see as the narrow world of school, get exited about the use of ICTs because they perceive the possibility of having meaningful exchange between learners at a distance as a way to effective learning. Their efforts are often hampered, however, by the constraints of the teaching institution, in particular, the straightjacket of the curriculum. This point was raised in Lisbon. The curriculum invariably divides learning up into a predetermined set of subjects that are kept separate from each other and taught by different specialists in each area. Yet "meaningful" exchange and communication doesn't necessarily let itself be divided up conveniently into subject matters. What's more, as was mentioned during the workshop, current forms of assessment - based as they are on measurable individual performance - are inappropriate for evaluating collaborative efforts. As in many other areas of human activities, the advent of widespread use of ICTs has revealed the need to change our institutions and our ways of working. They need to be more adequate to modern life in a complex world, but also, and probably more importantly, they need to reflect an emerging or re-emerging set of values that go beyond purely material interests.

One of main future scenarios discussed during the workshop at EMINENT concerned the increasing emphasis to be put on communities and collaboration, and the integration of such group learning into the local community. This scenario is fuelled by the recognition that there is a need to acquire and improve social skills, especially, but not only, because of the growing role of ICTs and that such skills can only be satisfactorily developed in meaningful exchange and collaboration. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the organisation of current school-based teaching often hinders such meaningful exchange and collaboration. The conditions necessary for the acquisition of "soft" skills run counter to some of the fundamental characteristics of current teaching institutions. Schools are relatively closed to the outside world. They privilege individual performance rather than exchange and collaboration. In assessment, they put the accent on sommative rather than formative evaluation. They divide learning up into convenient pre-prepared units on the supposition that only so is learning accessible. They put themselves forward as the privileged place of learning and sanction those who can't learn in such a context with bad marks resulting in a feeling of incapacity.

One possible way out of this situation is to open up schools to the local community as a rich source of competence. Working on a project-based approach to activities in which teachers, learners, research workers, support staff and members of the local community work and learn together, there is a possibility that teaching institutions could transform themselves into places of learning. On the subject of the division between work and learning, see my article entitled "Open sourcing ideas. A Hacker approach to working, learning and writing". One possible way of giving structure to such projects would be thematically, seeking, for example, to get a better grasp on current situations and key issues in society by setting them in a wider historical, social, cultural and economic perspective. Themes could be: the evolution of our notion of work; our relationship to knowledge; our changing percpetion of the workings of the universe; the evolving values that underlie society; our notion of good and bad; ways and means of decision-making; the rise and possible fall of money; ... One of the attractive things about such a project-based approach, is that it can bring together a multitude of different perspectives, rather like a cubist painting, such that people of different ages, different cultures, different interests can each contribute from their point of view and learn a great deal from that of others.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: February 12th, 2002 - Last up-dated: February 12th, 2002