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Giving Students Respect: One of the Great Soft Skills of Teaching and Learning

E A Burns

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Classroom management; Practical pedagogy; Respect; Soft skills; Teaching practice

PUBLISHER The Author(s) 2018. This article is published with open access at

The importance of soft skills is described for achieving teaching and learning outcomes by educational instructors. The introductory discussion briefly explores the variety of attributes that different scholars classify as soft skills. The emphasis here is on the intangible human qualities that create outstanding learning opportunities, rather than viewings soft skills as simply teaching process in contrast to hard skills of knowledge and performance. Two examples of teaching scholars are considered in elaborating how they achieve high quality learning outcomes: Four principles from Wlodowski and Ginsberg in delivering intensive block courses are outlined. Five principles from Bain’s research into ‘What the Best Teachers Do’ are also described. In each case these teaching exemplars show the importance of soft skills in the craft of teaching. In the last part of the discussion the soft skill of respect is put forward as a fundamentally important, but often undertheorised and underutilised, pedagogical self-discipline and resource for excellent teaching.


This essay is a conversational reflection on many years of tertiary degree teaching and other kinds of teaching. In one sense it is not so much biography as auto-ethnography[14]: What makes teaching work? What makes teaching go well? When does the teacher struggle? Of course, circumstances vary. We are not all as capable or as comfortable at all kinds of teaching, or in one teaching context compared to another. Yet there are some commonalities we assemble across different experiences, since each teacher has some measure of expertise and acts as a common element in the teaching and learning mix, even in varying circumstances and differing teaching environments.

Much emphasis in teacher training is placed upon the content and quality of the material taught, the physical (or increasingly electronic) resources of books, laboratories and other facilities, as well as attending to the administrative and curricula frameworks and sequences, perhaps state or nationally set. Similarly, within individual schools and teaching institutions these structuring parts of pedagogical practice are often the rubric and measure of teacher competence and compliance. But how complete are they as substantive metrics of and predictors of actual learning or effective education that enables students to gain the widest vision and broadest possible competencies, linking the specifics of one or more classrooms with the whole of life and career educational competence and mastery, and hence contribution to society? These are all important parts of achieving consistent delivery of large-scale, even, levels of graded broad education.

I have no argument with or antagonism towards these necessary components of the educational apparatus in contemporary societies. As the relative importance of teaching and education at all levels becomes greater in the urbanising and technological world, each aspect of the pedagogical process needs to be turned over and inspected for its continuing relevance. How does it, for example, fit with other changes in the teaching and learning environment? How each element might be reaffirmed or re-positioned depends on the field or discipline and the educational level under consideration, as well as the needs and strategic design of senior levels of educational departments and curriculum boards concerned with the governance of the education domain under their care.

My concern is that the formal enunciation of such required or recommended teaching and learning elements seems to me to be a very truncated account of how learning takes place. It is almost inherent in this necessary cycle of re-evaluation of what is working in the teaching process and what could be better—could be improved or upgraded—that committees and official reports speak of the structural, explicit and material aspects of the educational world about which they are reporting. I am sympathetic to this tendency, but it is one that educators and education systems must see through to the actual objectives and deeper strategic purpose of what they are engaged in delivering for students individually, their local communities and for the good of society as a whole.

One unexceptional response might be to counter this concern as being a false worry, impugning the motivation and clarity of educators setting out the field of learning at appropriate institutional levels, and of the vast amount of time and effort that goes into constructing state and national curricula.

As evidence of this rebuttal it is possible to point to the substantial efforts in teacher training emphasising professionalism. That is, it is not just left to the structural setting out of the learning field, but the practice of teachers and front-line instructors is also attended to; and recognised as important. Mentoring newly graduated teachers, in-service training, refresher courses, post-graduate or specialisation courses, teacher development conferences and so on all contribute to front-line teacher performance and excellence.

Again, I have no quarrel with any of these positive activities and beneficial programs that both support teachers themselves as well as addressing the education system’s need to have a current, effective and engaged teacher workforce. What I want to do, however, is ask, “What is inside the black box of professionalism?” It is easy enough to say the words: profession, professionalism and professional. It is possible to devise courses and training around these concepts. As a sociologist constantly studying professions and professionalism, I will leave aside theorising possible assumptions that undermine the axiomatic goodness or desirability of these ideas of professional competence and capabilities. This is not the problem of any one country or culture. Examples can be multiplied from many societies. Here are three brief illustrations:

Let me first pick a recent report on Chinese education—China’s national system is currently producing about eight million university graduates a year, about twice as many as that of the United States. But it may be that sheer numbers are only part of the story of what is needed from educational outputs. Getting the ‘Wrong types of skills’ can be a problem, as Stapleton argues[47]:

Despite the rapid increase in the number of university graduates, Chinese companies complain of not being able to find the high-skilled graduates they need. The main deficit is in so-called ‘soft skills’ such as strong communication, analytical and managerial skills. According to research by McKinsey, there is a short supply of graduates with these assets.

The English newspaper The Independent[22] identified seven necessary graduate skills, some more obvious ones such as communicating ability, but the softer competencies are much more difficult to ingrain. For example, competencies like ‘Attempting to understand others’ way of thinking or experiences is a hugely important factor’ yet for all the lip-service given to such ideas as wanting the technical knowledge as well as social intelligence, the latter is much harder to identify, let alone train, generate and sustain.

The United States National Association of Soft Skills[32] similarly lists what it considers “The top ten skills for success’, and even with variations, the general message is the same. Technical skills somehow get created more easily, graduates come with specific skills-sets but the soft skills that fit them for the workplace, enable them to work with others, including difficult others, in complex and varied situations, are much harder to find, harder to create and make hiring even aspiring and ambitious young graduates, problematic for their contribution to the organisation employing them.

e discussion that follows in this article invites quantitative researchers to think of ways they can operationalise the ideas as measures and thus confirm or disconfirm the efficacy of such soft approaches that it is argued here go beyond top-down teacher-centric pedagogy[13,20,37,41]. This scholarly attitude of being professional, not solely about one’s starting discipline or field of expertise, but also in one’s teaching of that area of expertise to students[18,25,35,45], is an important performance measure of academics’ value[7,16,33]. Not everyone of course is a skilled communicator and depth of research knowledge has its own compelling quality. It is too easily an admission of teaching inadequacy to refuse to pay attention beyond the many necessary but formal/structural aspects of teaching and learning, from curriculum, to courses, in order to engage in classes, groups and in one-to-one interactions and response[48].

Professional, engineering and applied fields can add great additional value to the content of their training by improved teacher proficiency in their teaching and learning skills and practices. It is very much the case that discipline or occupational experience is of great worth. However, so too is respect and orientation to what the student needs in order to ‘get’ the points being taught, and make them his or her own. Every country suffers from practicing graduates who have merely mechanistic understanding of the threshold concepts of their fields. Rote learning is only one part of a fluent and broad capability to act professionally in most fields. Good teaching is a contribution to national wellbeing that persists a long way from academic institutions themselves[6,9]. Consider these examples: nursing[4,15], accounting[10], learning trades[19], psychiatry[21], the history discipline[23], inter-professional maternity work[24], social work[26], geography[27], business disciplines[28,42], education[34,39,44,46], public health[36], medicine[40], sociology[29], community development[43].

The proposition being discussed in this article may be expressed as a question: what makes for good teaching? Or more specifically, does/how does respect, as an active and intentional teaching practice and behaviour, change the learning or retention outcomes of students? Alternatively, the proposition may be expressed in the traditional form of a scientific hypothesis: that respect in teaching results in better outcomes. Whichever mode the research inquiry is expressed in, work is needed to define the variables—what measures count in assessing initial lack of knowledge and learning, and what counts as repeatable intervention for as complex a thing as teaching practice that shows a specific soft skill such as respect, along with the technical or content, within a given subject or course.

Page(s) 41-61
ISSN Print : 2320-7655, Online : 2320-8805

Respect is not the only important soft skill in teaching. In a larger monograph on this subject it would be important to devote space to kindness and how that functions. What are the traps and what are the imperatives? What is being friendly without being friends? Again, culture by culture and teaching system by teaching system, these vary within socio-cultural rules and norms. Thus, it is not a matter of proposing absolute statements but seeking how this might apply in each national or regional locality. That larger monograph would also explore the soft skill of curating or managing a class, beyond simply structuring the class. This is a subject often taught in teacher training programs and courses, as indeed it needs to be.

In watching experienced and excellent teachers at work there is always a mixture, an interplay, of hard or structuring skills and soft enabling skills that mean the structures make sense and the softer skills blend into the performativity of the teaching and learning. The intangible skills of enabling students’ learning is the point being highlighted here. It only starts to become evident once the basic capacity to safely manage a functioning teaching environment for the time-period required. As young university teaching assistants gain in experience and get more confident, it is very evident that they ‘lighten up’ on their hard content focus and develop softer skills in attending more to what students are doing, or not doing, with the content. What don’t students yet understand? It is the soft skills managing the interaction, misunderstandings and threshold concepts in the minds of the students that rightly become their first focus in enabling learning.

Taking these ideas beyond policy and discussion, applying scholarship of teaching and learning research approach to this topic could be applied in several ways[30] and across any discipline whether academics wished to test and improve their delivery[31], as noted in the references listed for in the first section. The normal scientific practices of pre-test-intervention-and post-test could be applied. This would involve specific preparation of the pre-andpost-test measures, as well as creation of relevant interventions in terms of demonstrating respect in the student-teacher-class interaction. This would be different in classrooms, laboratories, fieldwork or small tutorial groups. It would nevertheless be highly interesting and valuable in those varied teaching and learning environment and different disciplines. How does it play in these different settings?

Another variation of empirically testing respect or any of these soft skills is to use a ‘natural experiment’ method. In this approach researchers identify the presence or absence (devising the appropriate survey/focus group/interview or other research instrument to achieve a measure for use pre-and post the semester. It may not be a whole semester, but a specific learning activity or process that is of interest. This may introduce—deliberately or simply from the circumstance of what is already happening—the control group idea. That is, if the intervention (‘showing respect’ in some format or another) is present or absent, what effect or effects does that have on measures such as learning and grades, or perhaps retention or perhaps rating of a positive learning environment by students. Just as for any other research, there are always limits and constraints, but at least some empirical and measurable insights are generated. These methodological suggestions for soft skills research are summarised in Table 1.

There are other soft skills that can be important contributors to and productive of excellent results. Finally, I refer to the noted social theorist Pierre Bourdieu[8] who addressed the tacit aspects of any human social exchanges as practice rather than able to be fully theorised conceptually as categories or types. His book, The Logic of Practice, makes these not-fully-formulable dispositions and attitudes central to social theory and action in society. In education, too, this is an empowering way of conceiving of the teaching and learning function. Though an earlier generation of scholars believed his ideas were about reproducing the social order, it is now recognised[49] that Bourdieu was describing individuals actively struggling with times of social change and being prepared and able, or not, to engage with the demands of the contemporary world.

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