Service Design, Design Strategy, Education, Systems Thinking

Designing for Soft Skills in (Remote) Education

When thinking about designing the future of education, certain words rise to the top: curriculum, digitization, devices, and access. Sure, those are tenets of how educational material is written, structured, or delivered, but where are the human fundamentals?

As design researchers and interactive designers, it is our job to solve for the “soft skills” training that traditional education currently lacks, a systemic concern in recent years. When did students stop being able to think critically? How can we change the model, especially within remote education, to help both students and recent graduates succeed in both their lives and their work?

Autonomous Decision Making

In ethnographic research we perform for educational partners we regularly hear that post-secondary students arrive in classrooms lacking both confidence and experience in making definitive, concrete decisions on their own.

Dr. Valjeaner Ford, a researcher at University of North Carolina, describes that “Self-determination is enhanced when the student feels free to act out of free choice. Autonomy support [in high schools] recognizes the magnitude of structure and guidance, while emphasizing the benefits of giving students freedom, volition, and responsibility for themselves.”

When students lack autonomy in their decision making—the ability to have free choice and volition—it’s extraordinarily difficult to take risks and make important decisions.

Learning to be Rationally Skeptical

We’ve heard a lot about “fake news” recently. It can be easy to assume that people are able to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, but a 2016 Stanford study showed that it’s not quite that simple. In the study, 350 middle school students were shown an article clearly labeled as “sponsored content”—80% believed it was objective, real news. A 2017 study by MindEdge echoed these findings; of the 1000 millennial research participants, only 24% could detect fake news at all.

“Young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word ”bleak.”

Stanford History Education Group 2016 Study, Executive Summary

Rational skepticism is not simply about identifying fake news on the internet. It’s the learned ability to make sense of large amounts of complex raw data that, thanks to the internet, all of us now have access to. Understanding rational skepticism leads to making plausible inferences—a key skill needed to participate in a political, non-objective world. When students lack this ability they risk becoming lost sheep amongst sheep, or worse, spreading misinformation, following invisible breadcrumbs, or missing out on valuable opportunities to get ahead.

Learning to Understand System Interconnectivity

Both human-made and natural systems are complicated, dynamic entities that can obscure causality in their complexity. Thinking in systems reflects the ability to cope with the messiness of the world around us. A “simple” business problem of supply and demand is inextricably linked to issues of diplomacy, regulation, the environment, and so-on. To learn to think in systems is to learn to think simultaneously of divergent hypotheses about cause and effect, and cope with problems that lack boundaries. Students need to learn the macro with the micro—like developing a foundation of financial literacy, not just knowing how to swipe a debit card.

Learning the Craft of Making Things

Learning craft is about gaining self-confidence. When learning a new skill, we first realize that we aren’t very good at it. Whatever we made doesn’t look quite the way we envisioned, and that can feel disappointing. It is only through repetitive practice that the quality of what we’re making improves—it’s a slow and important process of self-growth and actualization that requires time, perseverance, and patience.

Students must be encouraged to learn and practice the roll-up-your-sleeves hard work necessary to bring ideas to life. If not, they’ll repeatedly struggle with the experience, and belief, that they can’t make something good—and will end up feeling like they aren’t very good either.

What Next?

Soft skills like autonomy in decision making, rational skepticism, systems thinking, and craftsmanship are the very things that make graduates successful in employment—especially those jobs that are highly technical—and can lead to higher salaries, challenging and fulfilling work.

As fewer students are graduating with these fundamentals skills, they find themselves relegated to boring, repetitive, and underpaying jobs. Jobs that are quickly disappearing, replaced by automation. In the face of this seachange, even Elon Musk has proposed a universal living wage, not for any political agenda, but because he sees it as an obvious need.

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better… I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen.”

Rather than watch graduates enter menial service jobs and potentially lose those jobs to automation, we need to work to “fix” education by teaching those fundamentals—now.

Teaching Autonomy in Decision Making

And to learn autonomous decision making, students need to be placed in situations where they must select a path, and walk through the subsequent consequences, prompted to explore and explain their decisions. This means having partial control of their curriculum and the structure and behavior in the classroom: making decisions about what they do and learn.

Teaching Rational Skepticism

To fully learn rational skepticism, students need to encounter contradictory ideas, and walk with a guide through a process of contemplation. Students need to be regularly asked to justify their claims, to cite their sources, and to argue and examine opposing perspectives.

Teaching Systems Thinking

To learn about the interconnectivity of systems, students need to model and diagram non-causal-based experiences, interactions that can’t be reduced to a simple “if this, then that” form of logic. These are typically systems that include people, emotions, culture, and power.

Teaching Craft

To learn about craftsmanship and embrace the process more than the result, students need to make things with their hands, and to make those things over and over. This takes mentorship—traditional master/apprentice style learning. Incorporating applied art, design and engineering into classroom experiences naturally lead to this type of curricular learning.

Technology is the Gravy

Technology is an ever-larger component in education, a trend that grew exponentially due to COVID-19 when classrooms from kindergarten through doctoral campuses were closed and programs moved online. But no computer can revolutionize education or fully teach foundational soft skills without an overhaul of both private and public educational norms. The revolution will come when we prioritize these abilities and focus on the human benefits we want from a revolutionized educational system.

Focus on the teaching. Technology is just the support staff.