Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Without a focus on teaching soft skills, we risk an unprepared generation

In an ever-changing educational landscape, the focus on learning facts and figures is outdated. Instead, writes Dala Farouki Kakos, we must turn our attention to teaching the softer skills of creativity and communication
The judges in the annual Hackathon competition hosted by and held at NYUAD in Abu Dhabi wait for the start of the ceremony to announce the winners of the competition. Delores Johnson / The National
The judges in the annual Hackathon competition hosted by and held at NYUAD in Abu Dhabi wait for the start of the ceremony to announce the winners of the competition. Delores Johnson / The National

While usually the strategic direction of education is decided by government experts, students often show us clues to the way forward. This is crucial when trying to assess when times have changed within educational systems: listening to stakeholders and watching their behaviour clues us in to the next trend or the new needs of society that education should address.

At the moment, the current trend in the UAE is global knowledge and career preparation. Both are useful. But I call for a change of paradigm – a shift towards focusing on soft skills learning in education, to bridge the existing gap between outdated graduate skills and what the modern workforce needs.

By building on the abilities that modern-day students already have, soft skills are the way forward to allow for lifelong learning, and lifelong job security through graduate skill adaptability and independence. 

Let us start with the current situation in education. As an education strategist specialising in the UAE and transnational education, I am always in problem-solving mode. There is an educational culture of “fire fighting” issues: addressing them only after they crop up and are diagnosed. Instead, we need to create a culture of prediction, with the ability to see ahead of our needs and potential issues.

My latest study focuses on character education as a potential source of strengthening local knowledge and national identity in the UAE. It involved more than 300 university students, as well as faculty, staff and external education specialists.

Through student feedback, coupled with academic discussions in my career in education here, I have learnt that the current priority for UAE education is that of work preparation, through instilling “global knowledge” – a concept that combines critical thinking, the acceptance and awareness of multiple views and cultures, and the ability to pass the ever-present, wholly archaic requirements of maths, science and English.

Such skills may be considered useful, though I contend they are not necessarily requirements for education as much as other skills gained during one’s educational experience. Based on discussions with stakeholders such as those participant students in my study, and feedback from senior heads of many businesses in Dubai, I would say a new emerging trend is becoming even more of a priority. This trend is towards soft skills.

Soft skills include the ability to handle new challenges and new scenarios smoothly. They are the skills of adaptability, creativity, communication, independence and emotional maturity.

Such skills may be linked to moral and character education, while others (like adaptability) may be linked to a concept known as “lifelong learning” – the interest and commitment to learning throughout one’s life. Such soft skills are increasingly in demand from the workforce and especially from multinational companies.

While a student may graduate in accounting, he or she may lack the ability to accurately convey the needs and gaps of this year’s financial report to a meeting room of other employees. That requires soft skills.

While global knowledge was previously considered the term of choice for schools and universities to describe their curriculum to potential students, today’s world needs more focus on soft skill learning to prepare graduates for the workforce. The misalignment of current graduate skills with workforce needs shows that times must change and education must undergo a paradigm shift in teaching and learning goals.  

Let’s not forget that technology and time both have an effect on workforce needs. This was even the case in education historically.

In western countries, some universities were established as finishing schools of sorts: for privileged male heirs of political and business rank to continue their parents’ legacy, they needed to be able to understand Latin, discuss history and culture, and comment on the current events of the day. Such skills may have been considered the soft skills of that day and were the priority for institutions to prepare their students for their future.

When the UAE discovered its bounty of oil and was launched into a globalised world headfirst, it needed to prepare its citizens by prioritising global skills. Now we are considered an established global player. The UAE is a hub for several industries, such as tourism, business and aviation. Thus, the priority has changed to preparing students for the future to continue the development of the country. The time has come to change again, from teaching global skills to soft skills.

Sir Ken Robinson, a talented British education adviser and public speaker, often points out that by the time students graduate and enter the workforce, their skills are already outdated. Computer language changes from year to year – from interface to interface.

Typists gave way to social media managers. The point is: jobs change, skills for those jobs change, and people who cannot teach themselves, through any medium other than their school or university, will be limited in their future work options.

Soft skills such as adaptability and self-education through various open learning sources will be the keys to getting, and keeping, a job in the near future. While Sir Ken argues for the need for creativity as an educational priority, creativity is considered only one of a set of soft skills for student readiness.

In my study on character education, the majority of students wanted to learn more character education, including information on culture, and about local knowledge such as business acumen, to enhance their experience in university.

Interestingly, the majority of students also felt that they were “third culture kids”, or children who identify with more than two cultures – their third culture being the UAE’s, and their first and second being their nationality and their family heritage.

Such multiple identification with global cultures brings with it global skills. Thus, global skills may be considered outdated, since most students in education here are already global citizens.

Another development related to this topic is that the Government recently announced that it will include moral education in school curriculum. There is little detail as to how and to what extent this will happen, but the fact of the matter is that the UAE has already recognised the need for curricular change, and that is towards more soft skills such as ethics and morality.

While some schools or universities may argue that they do indeed prioritise soft skills, there is a lack of evidence. More needs to be done, in a strategic, unified way, to adapt current education to future needs.

For example: why are there no debate courses as part of the core requirements within a curriculum? There are few educational institutions here that require charity and community service to graduate. There is no testing of whether students can teach themselves how to build a basic website using resources from the internet. There are only tests on maths, sciences, English and reading. But these are soft skills – these are what a company will look for in its future employees. 

Keep in mind that the way students should learn such soft skills must also adapt to the new generation and its needs and abilities.

For example, in today’s world a baby learns to swipe left on an iPad or iPhone from as early as 6 months old. A new generation today is used to fast information, changing at a rapid rate and holding their attention for only a few minutes at best.

Thus, a traditional classroom setting which has students sitting and focusing on a whiteboard and a teacher for the majority of a 20- to 45-minute lesson does not do the job. Why should we expect students to learn these new skills without using the best of their modern abilities?

An educational institution used to be understood as a place for the exploration and practice of concepts. Perhaps going back to this open learning model is the best way to teach students soft skills.

The indications towards the next trend in educational priority points to soft skills, and thus there is an immediate need for soft skills to become part of the core curriculum. If we do not prepare students for their real future needs through soft skills learning, we risk an unprepared generation that will no longer be able to cater to the needs of industry – a requirement that is crucial to remaining a global player.

Dr Dala Farouki Kakos is the chief education and strategy officer of Valour Ventures, a Dubai-based group company that offers consultancy services in education, technology and design

Updated: October 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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