Soft skills of teachers: a transcendental phenomenological study

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Teachers in the South African educational context are expected to meet an increasing number of professional demands, including producing academic results and developing professionally, while also fulfilling an affective role in schools. In this study, the skills that teachers need were investigated from the perspective of previously less well defined soft skills. Soft skills are described as the interpersonal, human, people or behavioural skills needed to apply technical skills and knowledge in the workplace.

Theoretical work by Howard Gardner initiated investigation of the relationship between cognition and emotions. He proposed that neurologically people possess multiple intelligences which determine how they think and learn. This theory had a major impact on existing philosophies concerning how teaching, learning and assessment take place. It suggests that teachers should take different intelligences into account when planning, teaching and assessing (Gardner 1992:1–23). Two of these intelligences, namely interpersonal feelings and intrapersonal intelligence, later made way for research regarding emotional intelligence (Dolev and Leshem 2016:3). It is important to acknowledge the prominence of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence and the influence that it may have on positive learning outcomes in a classroom. For this investigation the term soft skills is used when referring to these combined skills or intelligences.

Research about interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence often relies on what people feel and cannot be quantified; therefore, a qualitative approach which was investigative in nature was applied in the study.

“Norms and standards for educators in South Africa” (DvO 1998:53) defines the roles that teachers are required to fulfil. Some of these roles are cognitive and technical in nature (such as the role of interpreter and designer of learning programmes and materials), while some of the roles require more interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, for example citizen and pastor in his/her community, and leader. When considering teaching in South Africa, the context of schools and the socio-economic realities with which children and educators are faced require teachers to have even more non-technical skills (Umeghalo and Obi 2020:152).

The aim of this study was to explore the phenomenon of soft skills in education, focusing on the soft skills of teachers.

A qualitative transcendental phenomenological research approach was selected in order to explore whether excellent teachers from three secondary schools in diverse economic settings in the Western Cape employed soft skills when teaching. School principals, learners and the teachers, who were identified as excellent by principals and learners, were asked which skills they thought are important for excellent teachers to possess. The results of this study indicated that teachers perceived as excellent exhibited soft skills in addition to the technical skills needed for teaching. Furthermore, the use of soft skills often distinguished excellent teachers from good teachers.

The transcendental phenomenological approach shows the way for the portrayal of participants’ experiences – describing the phenomenon as accurately as possible (Groenewald 2004:47). A vital part of this strategy is for the researcher to, firstly, identify and declare, and, secondly, set aside his/her own experiences in order to understand the interviewees’ experiences of the phenomenon being examined (epoché) (Moerer-Urdahl and Creswell 2004:6). This process is called transcendental because of the integrated nature of the experiences of the interviewees and the phenomenon studied, namely the soft skills of excellent teachers. It allows the researcher to set aside any personal prejudgements and consequently use systematic procedures to analyse the data.

After framing the research in literature regarding teachers, their skills and their working environment, the phase of horizonalisation took place. Here, 128 significant statements (identifying and describing the importance of soft skills) were extracted from the interviews, focus groups and reflections. These statements were reduced to 67 horizons where statements with similar meanings were grouped together. The process was taken further by (1) bracketing and delineating units of meaning by looking at the significant statements; and (2) imaginative variation to discover possible underlying structures or themes. This is where a possible classification system for soft skills of teachers started to emerge (Moustakas 1994:97).

Although interviews and focus group discussions started off by deliberating on technical and cognitive skills that excellent teachers have, the discussion naturally progressed to more non-technical and non-cognitive skills without any prompting. It was evident in contact with participants that soft skills were significant.

The underlying structure of soft skills that emerged naturally was a matrix with four quadrants; two continuums placed over one another. One continuum, following the work suggested by Gardner, is interpersonal – intrapersonal, and the other continuum is feeling (emotive) – doing (behavioural). In this way, the four quadrants in which the soft skills of excellent teachers were classified were: interpersonal-feeling, intrapersonal-behavioural, intrapersonal-feeling and interpersonal-behavioural.

The four quadrants were used as themes for discussion. The groups were discussed by using the direct words of the participants. The result of the classification of the soft skills in these four quadrants, and the number of times a certain group of soft skills was mentioned in the interviews and focus group, led to further interesting findings. Even though the participating schools chosen were diverse, similar groups of soft skills were deemed important across all of the schools. Intrapersonal-behavioural skills were mentioned most frequently. Examples of intrapersonal-behavioural skills provided by participants are that teachers are “congruent inside and outside school” and that they possess the “ability to evaluate the problems [that] learners have”. This intrapersonal skill becomes evident in how a teacher acts towards learners.

According to the transcendental phenomenological approach, it is essential to reflect on the “essence of the experience” when the phenomenon had been described and underlying structures were investigated. In this reflection, I realised that merely talking about the soft skills already goes a long way towards raising awareness of the importance of these soft skills, and can therefore enhance the quality of teaching and learning at a school. It might be useful to explore the classification further to pinpoint the most significant skills in order to train teachers accordingly. Literature on the topic emphasises that soft skills can be learnt and should therefore be incorporated in teacher training programmes.

Sigmund Freud captures the necessity for attention to soft skills of teachers, as quoted by Jarvis (2005:147): “[I]t is hard to decide whether what affects us more and was of greater importance to us was our concern with the sciences that we were taught or with the personalities of our teachers.”

Keywords: soft skills; teacher skills; teaching and learning; transcendental phenomenology


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Onderwysers se sagte vaardighede: ’n transendentale fenomenologiese ondersoek

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