life skills Live English

Do you mind the gap?

Our second post on Life Skills is by Mariela Gil Vierma.  Mariela has taught English in the US, Mexico and Thailand and has worked for Macmillan since 2002. She is currently commissioning editor and developed the concept for the Mind series which involves the development of life skills alongside English.

There’s this gap. I’ve seen it in myself. And I’ve seen it in others. But never as clearly as the time I observed a classroom of teenagers doing presentations about their educational system in English. Their English, learned as a foreign language, was very good. Their accents and grammar were great. Their presentation however, well that was another story. It was painful. There was no clear point to what they were saying. They had snazzy PowerPoint presentations, but their ideas were a mishmash of information they’d downloaded from the web and apparently hadn’t bothered to process. I looked at the time on my phone, counting the minutes to get out of that class. Why couldn’t they get their act together? They were students in an elite university. Surely they’d been taught to think through their points while preparing a presentation, hadn’t they?

I’m not the only one to notice the gap. Educators and policy makers around the world are calling for what some call life skills, competencies or 21st century skills to fill in that gap between what students learn in school and what they need to be capable of in real life. These skills haven’t normally been taught in schools but they make a huge difference. It doesn’t matter if your presentation is linguistically spotless if your points aren’t clearly thought through. It may be important to have an English qualification under your belt when you look for a job, but it’s just as important to be assertive when negotiating your salary and conditions. It’s wonderful to understand the movie in English without reading the subtitles, but you might miss its relevance if you aren’t open-minded and empathetic enough to try to understand the characters’ culture.

Traditionally schools have taught knowledge: Math, Science, History, and of course, Languages. And in the process they typically also (possibly unintentionally or at least unofficially) teach skills that make people “good” students: people who understand how to follow rules, do homework, study for the test, get good grades, get degrees, and then go get the job of their dreams. The paradox is that either the dream job doesn’t exist so they have to create it themselves, or if it does exist, what employers want is people who have a host of skills in addition to or above having specific knowledge. They want people who can be assertive, are open-minded, have empathy for their clients, work with people who are different from them, are innovative, make connections that others haven’t made, find solutions others haven’t seen, follow some rules, but make new ones up that others will follow.

So how do we go about improving these life skills which aren’t taught in school? In fact, how do we go about unlearning the opposite skills which we’ve implicitly learned? I think the process starts with cultivating awareness. I’m not talking about the awareness that we need these skills, although that’s essential too. I’m referring to cultivating an awareness of what behaviors, attitudes and values underlie any particular skill. Finding out what others think and do when they’re being assertive, for example. It might entail simple steps that you have to practice and get used to. Or it might entail a different way of looking at things. The next step is to actively develop the skill by trying it out and practicing it. And I think the cycle ends with reflection. How did that go? Did it work? In what sense? How did it feel? Then we start all over again seeking to add that experience to our awareness of the skill. I like to think about educating myself as a cyclical and continual process. It’s not something I can do once and be done with it. And in these ever-changing times, it’s in every person’s power to close their own gap.

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Mariela Gil


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