Centre for Soft Skills

Deputy Features Editor Cate Hanlon interviews Laurens Calcoen about the Centre for Soft Skills, a new programme offering workshops on essential social interaction skills.

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Photo Credit: CSS

We have all asked ourselves the question at some point in our university career – or perhaps before we even started university. Is devoting all of this time, effort, and money into what is essentially two letters after your name or a new bullet point on your CV going to be worth it? Maybe—if you’re studying law or medicine or something that is likewise very clearly related to one particular career, it will be. University, for people in those courses, is essentially very lengthy, expensive job training. For the rest of us, university may be a time for figuring out what we really want to do, deciding where our interests lie, and perfecting the art of learning how to learn.

Many people enter university with a rather vague idea of what they want to do after they graduate. We take classes that seem interesting, or that may be related to a potential career in a distant, hazy future. University, especially in the UK, is not designed for that. Students take a limited amount of subjects and study them in great depth. It is assumed that, upon entering university, you will know the subject to which you want to devote four years of your life. On top of the immediate specification, the way we study is so abstract and academic that much of what we have learned will be rendered useless.

At university, we do a vast amount of reading and we hear from experts in the field that we study, but most of what we study is theory-based. We are book learning, memorizing facts and concepts that may one day come in handy in our chosen field, but will certainly not be all we need. A degree is absolutely necessary for most jobs in today’s world, but it can not be treated as job training. We will learn about dozens of ideas that we will never think of again, and we will need skills in the work force that are never approached at university.

This is the theory behind the Centre for Soft Skills, a programme that offers a series of workshops on the ‘soft skills’ that we are not taught in lecture halls. ‘Soft skills’ would include communication techniques such as negotiation and mediation – useful not only in every career but in our interactions with friends and family as well.

Laurens Calcoen, a postgraduate student who, together with a team of highly motivated students, created the program and has organised the first set of workshops, to take place between the end of February and the end of April.

Mr Calcoen is from Belgium, and is completing a master’s degree in Strategic Studies, in the School of International Relations. He has aspirations to go into diplomacy, like his father. Before coming to St Andrews, he obtained a BA in International Studies specializing in the Middle East and a masters in Comparative and International Politics at the KU Leuven, in Belgium. His studies alerted him to the flaws in an education system so focused on the transfer of ‘hard knowledge’ from teacher to student. He spoke of how very intelligent people can find themselves lacking the emotional intelligence that may be essential to their situation.

While working on his mastersin Belgium, Mr Calcoen joined theLeuven Centre for Collaborative Management (LCM), a society centred around, not beer-drinking, like many others, but negotiation. Students started the society after reading Getting To Yes, a 1981 guide to winning arguments by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The idea of a student-initiated group learning about argumentation and persuasion inspired Mr Calcoen to start a similar movement when he got to St Andrews.

In addition to his experience with the LCM, Mr Calcoen was inspired by the flaws he sees in current university curricula.

“Very often,” he said, “you read texts, you’re in libraries, there’s no practical experience. It’s all theories, abstract concepts, formulae… it’s very theoretical… In my opinion, universities have lost touch with the real world. For instance, you have professors who have never worked outside of academia in their life.”

In our education system, students are expected to learn the intricate ins and outs of communication and presentation solely by trying and failing on their own. The emphasis on ‘hard knowledge’ rather than ‘soft skills’ leaves students who are not immediately receptive or charismatic floundering, trying to figure out how to navigate the complex network of relationships that others seem to sail through.

“One idea behind the project is to really have this practical approach. There’s so much that we don’t know about,” Mr Calcoen said. “Soft skills are centred around how to deal with people, interaction. At both school and university, people really think that we ought to be good at social interaction – between people, with friends, with strangers. The thing is, you are not taught those skills either at school or at university.”

With the impending force of massive workplace automation and the general existential terror many of us feel when we think about attempting to enter the workforce, these skills will only become more important. The one thing that humans can stilldo better than the machines that we have created (for now) is interacting with other humans.

“The big question is: how can we cope with this world of tomorrow?” Mr Calcoen asks. “The idea behind CSS is that the answer is ‘we have to become more human’.”

CSS will be running a series of six cumulative workshops, the first three focusing on mediation, the second three on negotiation. The work shops are each led by a different professional, each from very different lines of work. The presenters include professional mediators, business people, academics, and Scotland’s Police’s former head of armed policing and hostage crisis negotiation. Mr Calcoen spoke about the importance of sourcing a group of diverse people to lead the workshops, and how he hopes that the audience will reflect that diversity.

“One other thing we’re focussing on is diversity of thought. I mean, I am studying in the School of IR, and people think ‘negotiation, mediation – okay cool, IR’…. CSS is not only aimed at students in IR, it’s also for people studying computer science, studying biology, studying medicine. It’s for undergraduates, postgraduates, PhD students, even professors,” Mr Calcoen said.

The workshops are each three hours. During the first section, the theories and concepts are explained by the professional leading the session. After learning about the methods, students are involved in simulations and case scenarios to gain hands-on experience.

“I am not negating all that is theory-based; it is very important,” Mr Calcoen said. “Things go wrong when we only focus on that. It’s one extreme, and we have to reconnect ideas and theories with the practical aspect.”

All but the first workshop are on Wednesdays, from 4 pm – 7 pm. The first session is on Tuesday 28 February, and they finish up on Wednesday 25 April. With help from CAPOD and the PSC (Practical Skills Curriculum), the workshops are all free, food is provided, and students who attend at least five sessions will receive a PSC+ certificate.

“We couldn’t have dreamed of a better partner (in CAPOD),” Mr Calcoen said. “Students should be able to organize their own projects in university… CAPOD is very supportive of student initiatives, and without (them) the project would not have been possible.”

CSS hopes to help fill the gaps in our education, teaching communication instead of memorization. The organizers believe that the ‘soft skills’ they are striving to teach are applicable to every career and to every relationship.

For all the time we spend pouring over books and frantically finding synonyms to make our essays more eloquent, many of us fear we may still find ourselves slightly useless in the real world. Academia is odd, often unbearably pretentious, and seems far more interested in ensuring correct citation than in preparing us for employment. That is not at all to discredit all that universities do, but it is to say that it may be in our best interests to widen our perception of what it means to learn.

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