'While there remains a place for technical knowledge, in many fields this will rapidly date and it'll be the soft skills driving a successful career'

Posted on: 08 Mar 2018
Posted by: Tim Jones

As the IB curriculum celebrates its fiftieth year, Tim Jones, academic deputy head at Sevenoaks School, discusses how effective the programme has been - especially in nurturing the development of 'soft skills'.

soft skills n. (a) Mil. skills used in tasks requiring little or no specialist training, such as cooking, driving, paperwork, etc.; (b) abilities which enable effective communication and social interaction with other people; interpersonal skills (now the usual sense). [OED]

Isn’t it interesting that for the first half of the last century, ‘soft skills’ were taken for granted as those requiring little or no technical instruction, while in the second half their meaning and importance shifted to encompass qualities desirable in life and the workplace, and often missing from the provision of a traditional academic curriculum.

This century, these skills are among the most prized. This is partly because the ongoing technological revolution has already rendered most manual and industrial skills obsolete. Increasingly sophisticated automation, accompanied now by the spectre of Artificial Intelligence, is continuing this seismic change in the way we work by making inroads into the skills found in white-collar employment too.

The rise of the international corporation has exacerbated this trend. A contemporary graduate enters a world of work in which they can expect to communicate with a very broad range of people from a wide variety of cultures. This graduate will also expect to retrain and renegotiate their role several times during their career. While there remains a place for technical knowledge and expertise, in many fields this will rapidly date, and the skills that will drive a long and successful career will be the soft skills that help a person excel at communicating and working with others.

So, what are these soft skills? Opinions differ, but I believe that many of them are at the heart of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, now in its fiftieth year. Sevenoaks School has been teaching the IBDP for 40 years and, through it and our own 11-16 curriculum, IB students learn valuable skills that will help them in the work place following schools, not just pass their exams:

Communication. Students learn presentation techniques from many courses, including English, Theory of Knowledge and all languages. IB students make natural debaters, and we’re heavily involved in speaking competitions and projects like the Model United Nations.

Adaptability. At Sevenoaks, students do not choose to pursue a particular academic path early in their teens, but all continue to the age of 18, to different degrees, with English, languages, humanities, science, mathematics and creative arts. In the course of a normal school day, they are exposed to radically different ways of thinking about the world.

Critical Thinking. Sevenoaks has introduced critical thinking courses across the whole school based on the IB. In Years 7-9, the Systems of Belief course considers the history and practice of a range of different belief systems, including atheism. In Year 10, Critical Perspectives teaches pupils how to interpret the mixed messages coming their way via different media – in the age of ‘fake news’ it is more important than ever to be able to distinguish fact from propaganda. In Year 10, Ten Ideas that Changed the World examines a variety of ideas, including The Reformation, The Individual and The Internet, and considers the extent of a particular idea’s impact on human society. Finally, in Years 12 and 13, students follow the Theory of Knowledge course, which looks at how truth and knowledge operate in different areas of human thought and practice.

Leadership. Students learn how to lead, how to serve, and the paramount importance of both roles. Leading teams of prefects, sports teams or academic projects teaches students the value of negotiation and setting a good example. Community service teaches them not to take their privilege for granted – at the heart of our ethos is the desire that our students use their education to make the world a better place.

Empathy. As an international, co-educational school, we ensure that our Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) programme emphasises the importance of being able to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Issues do arise, of course, but are largely solved by negotiation and the setting out of expectations.

Problem-Solving. An open ended and rigorous mathematics programme, undertaken to different degrees by every IB pupil, encourages students to use the mental tools at their disposal appropriately and critically. All teachers encourage imaginative experimentation and interdisciplinary mixing of ideas and techniques.

Teamwork is most visible in the co-curriculum, in sport, music and drama, but students also work in groups on science projects, in clubs and societies and on community education programmes.

These skills have always existed within a broad-based education. They can be squeezed out by an over-emphasis on testing, tracking and league tables which is at best a meaningless distraction and at worst, positively detrimental to education.

But the IB’s ethical core and its mission to encourage students to work together to make the world a better place, firmly ensures that these ‘soft’ skills retain a central place in a good education.

About Tim Jones

Tim Jones is academic deputy head at Sevenoaks School in Kent.