In our increasingly technological world, it is clear that our children’s educational needs are changing faster than teachers can keep up with.
We have welcomed technology into our classrooms, equipping students with computers and changing their curriculum to include new subjects meant to prepare them for the future—only to find out that by the time they graduate, what they have learnt will already be obsolete.
So how can we face the challenge of preparing students for a world that will look somehow different from like it does today? Fortunately, there are skills that will always be needed and are in fact in even higher demand now that routine jobs are done by machines and the most promising careers lie in designing them.
This is not to say that educators should retreat into teaching outdated facts, disregarding the role of technology in the world and turning schools into strongholds of traditionalism producing students who are incapable of adapting to the breakneck pace of change.
On the contrary, teachers who fear that their lessons will be far past its expiration date by the time their students face the real world should fall back on teaching skills technology alone cannot give. These skills can be summed up in two words: communication and empathy.
It has been often said that technology has improved our ability to communicate and connect with other people instantly and over great distances, but what is the point of having such wondrous opportunities if we have nothing to communicate or we find ourselves unable to do so effectively?
If employed properly, technology can be immensely helpful in improving the students’ ability to convey complex ideas and be in touch with their own and other people’s emotions: for example, by encouraging them to observe body language and nuances in the tone of voice in movies and audiobooks, or recording and critiquing their public speaking performances, teachers can remind students that even the smallest cues can make a big difference in the feelings and ideas a person communicates.
This will not only make them better speakers and writers, but also help them build healthier relationships that will benefit both their career advancement and their emotional well-being.
While the importance of keeping up with technology cannot be denied, a student cannot become an accomplished, well-rounded person without social-emotional learning (SEL), a set of skills that includes the ability to identify and manage one’s feelings, thus improving one’s capacity for handling stress and anger, to recognise those same feelings in others and act accordingly, and to make responsible, mutually beneficial decisions based on the awareness of how one’s choices can affect others.
The ability to communicate effectively and understand human emotional responses can be a boon in all fields, from projecting a positive image of yourself that will help you find a job and create personal connections with your colleagues, to designing powerful advertising that customers will respond to; even technology itself can benefit from the involvement of skilled, empathic communicators who can create better user interfaces and even improve the look and feel of artificial intelligence, making it less impersonal and more enjoyable to use.
This is why educators should teach empathy by example by being the first to apply the principles of SEL to their relationships with their students, encourage socialising with people they would not normally mingle with and expose them to points of view other than their own, show their pupils the importance of listening to understand rather than to reply, and not dismiss the contribution of classic literature to a modern education: by understanding how great novelists put themselves into the shoes of characters who are completely unlike themselves, students can learn to do the same with their neighbours from a different walk of life.
In conclusion, our future may be dominated by machines, but it is our ability to communicate and empathise that keeps us from turning into machines ourselves: the more technology advances, the more we must learn the value of human connections—and for most people, school is the first environment where those connections are formed, so social-emotional learning should be the foundation on which education is built.
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