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Soft skills and education in Jamaica

Education Matters

With Clement Lambert

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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With the rapid increase of crime and violence in Jamaican schools there is commensurate rejection and neglect of soft skills that may be necessary to avert conflict and promote healthier interpersonal relationships.

We often hear that graduates from our institutions are not fully prepared for the job market. This comment often refers to the specific skills to do a job where one is employed. As time at the workplace elapses, the employee will learn these skills through on-the-job experiences. Traits focus on the individual's fitness for purpose (emphasising hard skills) are prioritised over fitness for life (incorporating soft skills). I propose that a combination of hard and soft skills make students workforce-ready and responsible Jamaican citizens who will contribute to a more harmonious national existence.

One prominent career website lists the top soft skills as: communication, self-motivation, leadership, responsibility, teamwork, problem solving, decisiveness, ability to work under pressure and time management, flexibility, negotiation and conflict resolution. If these skills are promoted in organisational studies as key components of successful business operations these should be promoted in all school curricula from early childhood to tertiary levels.

Teacher preparation and soft skills development

Over the past two decades, in Jamaica, schools and colleges have been retrofitted into narrow areas of administrative and academic responsibility. At the tertiary levels many super positions have been created to which is assigned responsibility for particular aspects of college life. For example, the person appointed a director of students' affairs is now responsible for student matters. While I have no problem with the position, it has been evident in many institutions that when these portfolios are created it often creates an unmanageable compartment of responsibility for one individual and detaches faculty members, as they no longer consider the students affairs their purview. In past years, especially in residential teachers' colleges, student disposition was every faculty member's concern. Different faculty members were put on duty at various times to ensure that student conduct and interactions were wholesome and that they demonstrated the professional and social demeanour worthy of representing the institution they attended. Some colleges provided small incentives for this engagement.

Another important dimension of college life was dining with lecturers. College lecturers were offered complimentary or subsidised lunch on a daily basis. This, apart from seeing to the dietary needs of staff, had a higher purpose. Faculty members would either sit in designated areas or with students and model appropriate dining mannerisms and also helped to mentor students into appropriate table manners, and even table conversations. In many colleges this was scrapped because of cost-cutting measures. Years later it is manifest that many school administrators' grave errors were in sacrificing wholesome table interactions for cost.

At one college where I was closely associated in its earlier days I was bewildered to see college lecturers and students bundled in a lunch line collecting lunches in various containers and going their separate ways to eat. The cacophony of voices and the aggression on display at that cafeteria was enough for me to bemoan the decline of soft skills development for pre-service teachers.

At the secondary level another aberration has been created. With the rapid increase of antisocial behaviours, a super position called the 'dean of discipline' has been institutionalised by the Ministry of Education. Like all senior positions in our schools, this is a better paying position than that of an ordinary teacher, and many schools have appointed individuals based on merit of long service at the expense of creative individuals who can implement viable solutions to disciplinary issues in schools. In my conversations with some of these appointees they identify a potent plight as resentment and disengagement of colleague teachers who often disband their roles as models and defenders of discipline since there is one colleague in a school of over a thousand students who is being paid to do the job.

Undoubtedly colleges and schools across Jamaica have made changes in order to achieve improvement in student management and promoting socially acceptable behaviours. However, an evident weakness in our system is the reluctance to evaluate our systems and implement recommendations to address gaps caused by mandated changes.

Do our classroom teachers model soft skills?

Personal dispositions that enable individuals to coexist harmoniously or “soft skills” are rarely explicitly emphasised in schools' curricula or prioritised by policymakers. Educators — many of us with fractured value systems — are left to influence children and young adults with very little blueprint for promoting socially acceptable dispositions among our students. A stark example manifested in a conversation with a group of graduate students recently after I thought a female graduate student was just a bit too graphic in communicating a personal condition to me — a case of TMI (too much information) made me ponder whether our teachers are modelling the necessary behaviours for their students. I decided to have a general conversation with members of one of my groups. To my surprise, one male teacher revealed to me that all his students, when requesting a bathroom break, were required to tell him exactly what they were going to do there. He cited disciplinary reasons for his demand. I had a hard time convincing him of the inappropriateness of this arbitrary demand on his part. On the surface this might seem to be a mundane matter. However, it speaks to the influence that teachers who are deficient in soft skills might have on a younger population in terms of providing blueprints for socially acceptable behaviours.

Families and their responsibility

Have you ever held or opened a door for someone and he or she just went through the door as if it were an automatic door? The instinct to say “thank you” seems to be on the decrease. One day I experienced a lady opening a door for an adolescent family member — whom I consider to be a very decent person — and me. My adolescent relative merely passed through as if she was served by an automatic door while I blurted a big “thank you”. Befuddled and slightly infuriated I asked, “Why didn't you say thanks?” Her response was, “But she [the kind lady] was going to open the door for herself anyway.” Failing to see it from that angle I revised and reasoned with her on the importance of saying thank you. Families should also be keen on equipping their members with soft skills to survive in a rapidly changing world.

The influence of technology

If we observe closely children's interaction with technology and multiple media, there are programmes that can undermine the promotion of soft skills. This makes the promotion of media and information literacy even more necessary. To harness the influence of technology various agencies (eg, libraries, health and family life education, guidance and counselling) have to work together to promote wholesome technological and media experiences bearing the soft skills in mind.

Appropriate action

In addition to promoting achievement targets and gains there needs to proportionate initiatives to promote soft skills in our educational institutions and among unattached youth and adults. Multisectoral consultations and interventions such as a massive public awareness campaign promoting socially acceptable interpersonal and intra-personal interactions are necessary. Creating a coherent and cohesive national work plan for promoting laudable dispositions and institutionalising a playbook of soft skills that are necessary for this era might also be worth considering.

Dr Clement T M Lambert is a lecturer in language arts education at The University of the West Indies, as well as a researcher and consultant. Send comments to the Observer or clementtmlambert@gmail.com.

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