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Soft skills training makes students more successful, teachers more effective

By : Patrick van Twest

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Several years ago, I was given the opportunity to teach a 40 minute ‘general studies’ lesson to students of different age groups; each class had one lesson during the school year. The lessons focused on the so-called soft skills, such as relationship development, self-awareness, persistence and social awareness. Using outdoor education training programs as a basis, I created group challenges with mental and physical components that required the students to demonstrate leadership and teamwork in order to succeed.
However, the trouble with soft skills training is that they don’t lend themselves to direct instruction, unlike the teaching of academic subjects. As a teacher in the classroom, I control and plan the lesson and its outcomes – I tell the students, “This is what you need to know.” Social and emotional learning, or ‘non-cognitive’ learning, occurs instinctively: the students understand the lesson and then feel the need to share their thinking with others. For instance, in a lesson aimed at team building, students would have to internalise and demonstrate working together towards a single goal, such as ‘We all need to paddle together at the same time to be effective’.

The great outdoors – developing soft skills through experiential learning
The philosophy behind outdoor education is to facilitate experiential learning through nature, community and human resources outside of the classroom to improve student motivation and enrich the curriculum. The primary objective of outdoor learning is to create awareness and form relationships with oneself, with others and with the environment.
We took the group challenge learning idea, referred to at the beginning of this piece, and turned it into a three-day leadership camp involving various outdoor challenge and adventure activities. The program represented a natural platform for students to discuss and discover some key aspects of being good leaders and team players. The camps feature adventure activities such as white water rafting, abseiling, rock jumping, rope courses and various teamwork challenges. After experiencing the challenge of the activities, the students gather to discuss lessons about teamwork and leadership.
The advantage of learning these in outdoor settings, as opposed to the classroom, is that the students receive immediate feedback from each test that the environment or challenge presents, rather than waiting until the end of the term for their test grades. For example, after white water rafting, one student observed, “The river tells you straight away how you are doing – if you make a mistake, you end up out of the raft and in the water!”

The students also learn how to overcome their fears through such activities, how to help others and how to receive help. After the last camp, a girl reported that her most teachable moment was when she was struggling with breathlessness while trekking up a hill. Through the encouragement of those around her which enabled her to persevere, she learned the value of using kind words to encourage others. Another student commented that for the first time in his life, he had to learn how to live without technology for a few days, and he felt better for the experience.
Promoting learning in the natural environment outside the classroom also puts an emphasis on reality. Outdoor education shapes and improves the classroom experience with its focus on strength and endurance, social and self-confidence, leadership and anxiety control.
The path not studied – leadership and teambuilding as a foundation for personality development
So what exactly are soft skills?
In our current social climate that encompasses increasing globalisation and the rapid advancement of more sophisticated technologies, society needs to learn to adapt to a growing diversity of people and attitudes. This learning is the process by which people develop soft skills – those virtues and characteristics that help form bonds between members of a community and which are critical to the successful functioning of life. A person must have social abilities to communicate, negotiate, assert one’s self, work in a team, and have empathy for another.
School plays a critical role in social development; soft skills training should be an active part of the hidden curriculum: the unintended, unofficial lessons, values and perspectives students retain. The leadership and teambuilding exercises result in the development of other social and emotional competences. In essence, these challenges lay the groundwork for broad-based development, resulting in students better equipped to succeed.
But for social and emotional learning to succeed, students need a safe and reinforcing environment in which to practise their skills, an environment in which trust, initiative and risk-taking are encouraged. Learning is moving from the traditional lecture and ‘listen to what I have to say’, to a more interactive and cooperative style of learning with the teacher as a facilitator of the learning. So creating the right learning environment is essential to creating effective learners: students whose mastery of the soft skills, strategies, attitudes, mindsets and behaviours enhance their life success.
The right combination – rethinking how students and educators succeed
The modern educational process aims to provide students with sound academic training and the soft skills required to enter and participate in society. As already illustrated, combining structured lessons in the classroom with outdoor training is one way of ensuring students are prepared to face the complexities of the wider world. It is, however, sometimes a challenge to promote this style of education as valid and legitimate in the minds of students. Therefore, it is important to link the learning that takes place at camp, to situations that are likely to occur in daily life, to allow for perceptions about outdoor training to evolve beyond that of the purely novel.
It is also important to help educators to change their own beliefs and mindsets and perhaps focus on the development of their own non-cognitive competencies. Both students and teachers should be encouraged to change their beliefs in their capacities to learn. Behavioural change for teachers and students is hard, and even harder to sustain but being cognisant of the need for a better approach to learning and development is already half the solution.

By : Patrick van Twest
(Patrick van Twest teaches Sports, Leadership and Physics at Elizabeth Moir School)

Source : DailyFT