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21ST CENTURY SKILLS FOR UNIVERSITY GRADUATES IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT

 

In the era of fourth industrial revolution, universities – across the globe – are becoming more concerned with employability and offering life skills/soft skills that employers value much. Accordingly, they are designing education systems around the norms of the industrial society. Today’s educators think that future needs to be more integrated: integrated across the disciplines, helping students think like a scientist and at the same time think like a historian. Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that to change learning systems to integrate 21st-century skills (global skills) would require a revision to the current utilitarian view of education. Bangladeshi academics are now seriously thinking of introducing outcome-based curricula at universities so that students can know the outcomes of what they study or learn from a particular course. But, at the same time, they need to address the artificial dichotomy between knowledge and skills that has been invented by the educators.

A study by Australian economists, published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, claims to provide the first empirical evidence that university education generates non-cognitive skills thought to be essential for a continuously changing and globally expanding labour market. The study focused on the “big five” personality traits: emotional stability (emotional regulation), openness to experience (open-mindedness), conscientiousness (task performance), extraversion (sociability or engaging with others) and agreeableness (collaboration). All are considered vital to the functioning of workplaces as well as broader society. However, the paper concludes that Australian universities are successful in shaping life skills that employers and society value, “at least in the short run”. (Source: Times Higher Education on 14 March 2018)

Now question remains – do our universities put emphasis on students/graduates’ soft skills called “social and emotional” skills? Still we follow a very traditional system of assessing a student’s performance/skill through written exams. But it (summative assessment system) hardly helps measure a student’s skills he/she has developed throughout the program/university life. And due to lack of these skills, many of our graduates do struggle to be considered suitable for the competitive job market. We let our students learn academic knowledge, but don’t encourage them to learn about themselves in society. We should give them opportunities to use what they have learned before they enter into the real world – professional world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Social and emotional skills” refer to the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. These skills differ from cognitive abilities such as literacy or numeracy because they mainly concern how people manage their emotions, perceive themselves and engage with others, rather than indicating their raw ability to process information. But, like literacy and numeracy, they are dependent on situational factors and responsive to change and development through formal and informal learning experiences. Importantly, social and emotional skills influence a wide range of personal and societal outcomes throughout one’s life.

The role of social and emotional skills is becoming very important in a fast-changing and diverse world. A faster pace of living and a shift to urban environments means people need to engage with new ways of thinking, working and new people. The diverse populations and the dismantling of traditional social networks place additional emphasis on people’s sense of trust, cooperation and compassion. Social and emotional skills determine how well people adjust to their environment and how much they achieve in their lives. But the development of these skills is important not only for the well-being of individuals, but also for wider communities and societies as a whole. The ability of citizens to adapt, respect and work well with others is imperative. Taking personal and collective responsibility is increasingly becoming the hallmark of a well-functioning society. Ideological polarisation and social tensions are increasing the need for tolerance and respect, empathy and generosity, and the ability to cooperate in order to achieve and protect the common good.

Indisputably, being an educated person is associated with having a certain command of a curriculum, and knowledge of theories and facts from various disciplines. But the term “educated” also suggests a more far-reaching concept associated with individuals’ full development. Such development implies that individuals are equipped with traits and skills — such as critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, social skills, persistence, creativity, and self-control — which allow them to contribute meaningfully to society or State and to succeed in their public lives, workplaces, homes, and other societal contexts. Generically, these traits are often called “non-cognitive” skills.

Cognitive skills, such as general intelligence, have long been considered the most important determinants of employment success. However, the recent empirical evidences are pointing towards social and emotional skills directly affecting a variety of job outcomes – such as occupational status and income – on top of their indirect effect through educational outcomes. Social and emotional skills can be equally, and in some cases even more important, than cognitive skills in determining future employment. In fact, social and emotional skills are almost as influential as cognitive skills for the students.

Education systems must prepare students for their future. Nowadays, digitalisation is connecting people, cities and continents to bring together a majority of the world’s population in ways that vastly increases our individual and collective potential. But the same forces have also made the world more volatile, complex, and precarious. The rolling processes of automation, hollowing out jobs, particularly for routine tasks, have radically altered the nature of work and life and thus the skills that are needed for success. For those with the right human capacities, this is liberating and exciting. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, it can mean the scourge of vulnerable and insecure work, and life without prospects.

We know that preparing students with technical or academic skills alone will not be enough for them to achieve success, connectedness and well-being whatever endeavours they wish to pursue. Social and emotional skills — such as perseverance, empathy, mindfulness, courage or leadership — are central to this. We are born with what political scientist Robert Putnam terms bonding social capital, a sense of belonging to our family or other people with shared experiences, cultural norms, common purposes or pursuits. But it requires deliberate and concerted efforts to create the kind of binding social capital through which we can share experiences, ideas and innovation and build a shared understanding among groups with diverse experiences and interests.

The “Big Five” model popularly known as “Big Five Personality Traits” is also comprehensive enough to include the majority of social and emotional skills studied or researched to date. There is also extensive evidence that the “Big Five” domains/traits can be generalised across cultures and nations. Even though research has shown the presence of some culture-specific constructs, the common “Big Five” structure is present in most cultures and languages around the world, not just in Western societies. Several studies have shown that it is suitable for describing differences in social and emotional skills from childhood to old age.

Over the last years, social and emotional skills have been rising on the education policy agenda and in the public discourse/debate. But for the majority of students, their development remains a matter of luck, depending on whether this is a priority for their teachers or their institutions. A major setback is the absence of reliable metrics, in this field, that allow educators and policy-makers to make progress visible and to address the shortcomings. Nonetheless, our universities should seriously think of teaching students “social and emotional” skills on top of their academic studies to prepare them for the demands/needs of 21st-century world.

 

The writer is an associate professor & chair, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh. He can be reached at nahidneazy@yahoo.com

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