This was going to be a short twitter thread, then it got too long, so I made a blog post instead. I read an opinion piece in the Toronto Star today and I’m concerned. Mostly I’m concerned about the train of thought it represents. The article, “We need to start giving soft skills more credit“, is the newest version of similar work around soft/transferable skills that’s been around for years, but now with AI.
This seems like a good thing, because employers want employees with strong transferable skills, and colleges and universities already teach technical skills, and programs are designed so that students pick up transferable skills along the way. My problem is that the discourse is always focused on a behaviourist understanding of people. It presupposes that:
- Students must be explicitly taught something to learn it
- Evaluation means learning happened
I think a lot about what students need to know to be successful. And more and more I feel that the old elective model does a huge disservice to first year students. I was reading this article about the differences in perspective between educators and employers. I think that we need to think less of education as being discipline specific and think of it more as being general leading to specific. So the first year would be a more general education, the second being general within the chosen discipline, and the third and fourth years being the same as they are now.
I’d like to propose a standardized first year regardless of program. This curriculum assumes that the student is attending an English speaking university.
The guidance behind this is taking a liberal arts concept and applying it to the key soft skills of oral communication, written communication, reading, basic math, working in teams, thinking skills, and computer use.
Talking about the university system as if it’s doomed is fairly common. Here’s an article from three years ago outlining some common metaphors about the end of the post secondary system. The author’s disdain for them has been proven right so far. And yes, there are some for profit colleges running into problems because they were going for the quick money and shareholder support rather than looking at the long view the established PSIs have. And yes a small liberal arts college decided that it would rather close than leverage their endowment to reinvent itself. Whether that was a good or bad idea isn’t the point here.
The most important thing to remember about all of this is that we wont wake up one day with the university system crumbling or even disrupted. There will be warning signs.
The governor of New York recently proposed that 50% of teachers evaluations be based on the results of standardized tests. I’m not going to go into great detail about how much of fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of standardized tests that is. The short version is that standardized tests give the most useful information when it’s not too specific, so for example looking at a district by district sample, or by selecting randomized classrooms from the entire state/province to give an overall picture. Other people have explained what a problem it is to hold teachers responsible for things they don’t have full control over. I’m not going to go into that today. Instead I’m going to focus on the labour market.