We need to teach empathy…and stuff

Tibor Navracsics is the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. Today he tweeted this:

Most of today’s children will have jobs that don’t yet exist*. Soft skills are vital in enabling them to succeed in the labour market and life.

Tibor also quotes himself as saying:

It is no longer sufficient to equip young people with a fixed set of skills – we have to develop their resilience and their ability to adapt to change.

There’s nothing new in this kind of stuff – it’s all a bit clichéd by now and it’s part of a bigger picture. Just Google the phrase “21st century skills” and you’ll get the idea.  Indeed you’ll soon see that among the many ‘skills’ that we need to be teaching in this “highly complex and connected 21st century”, where information is expanding “exponentially”, are the following:

Critical thinking

Problem solving





Independent learning










Emotional intelligence

Mindset (especially of the ‘growth’ variety)


In the minds of many ‘thought leaders’, education is now viewed as a sort of social and therapeutic engineering project rather than a process where students acquire the broad knowledge that they need to live fulfilling lives regardless of their chosen career.

Now, if you believe that ‘teaching’ personality traits and attributes is the primary purpose of education then that is your right but there is a problem: who’s to say that any of us are really qualified to do any of this teaching – and that’s presuming that these attributes can be taught at all?  In fact, aren’t these traits and attributes best ‘learned’ by students ‘constructing their own knowledge’ through a process of discovery, i.e., life.

But even if we choose to teach these attributes, wouldn’t we need our teachers and lecturers to themselves be happy and resilient and mentally healthy? Or curious and collaborative, emotionally intelligent and empathic?

I would hope that we’re all a little more mature and wiser than our students but isn’t it just a tiny bit arrogant of today’s adults to suggest that we can teach children and young adults to be emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy? Have we done such a fantastic job?

I find it interesting that while we demand that teachers and lecturers have proven expertise in the academic subjects that they teach, the same high standards do not seem to apply when it comes to our teaching these non- subjects.

Mind you, maybe in the future all teachers will have to undergo one of those “Voigh-Kampff” empathy tests, just like in Blade Runner.


*Check out this nice BBC investigation of the whole jobs-that-don’t-exist thing


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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