Guest Author: Caroline Allams
If I told you that developing children’s soft skills will go a long way towards preparing them to be fine digital citizens, you may be sceptical, but let me explain why these skills are so important.
Historically, online safety information has been passed over to teachers to decipher and then deliver in one form or another. The problem with this approach is that, for some teachers, this is putting them in a space they may feel less than confident about. With children often ahead of the game when it comes to experimentation with technology, it can be daunting for a teacher to be an authority on the subject.
Regardless of whether a teacher has children of their own, knowing your Fortnite from your Minecraft is a lot to ask. Yet the ever-changing nature of online gaming is exactly what needs to be followed – how else do we check that children are protected? We are also on the cusp of entering a virtual world through the Metaverse, which Mark Zuckerberg describes as the internet’s ‘next frontier.’ 1 If there was already concern about what children are doing on screens, there is potential here for more of their lives to be moved to a virtual setting.
Despite the fears, instead of creating yet another barrier between adults and children when it comes to online interaction, there has to be a better way forward for online safety teaching and learning. For schools, a focus on soft skills in this area will go some way towards equipping children with the social skills and reasoning required to make better decisions.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills include the behavioural and habitual actions we take when communicating and connecting with others. These project our values and attitudes and can be impactful in terms of generating reactions and responses. Most of us have come across some very challenging interactions online, whether we’ve been directly or indirectly involved. The term ‘keyboard warrior’ nicely sums up how digital communication has taken on a life of its own. Having the cover of interacting behind a screen can diminish the soft skills usually applied in real-life scenarios. There is evidence that taking risks can support the development of online resilience and soft skills but placing children in risky settings within a school environment might be daunting to teachers. The good news is that they can be supported by safer online spaces available for schools that make this more manageable.
How can soft skills help with online safety teaching?
This is an area where the teacher certainly does know best. Behaviour management is inherent to everyday teaching, and this expertise can be applied to online safety teaching, with the right tools in place.
If a teacher asks questions about where children ‘hang out’ – as part of a focused online safety class – it will soon become clear which games and activities are popular right now. This gives the teacher a focus for getting to know them. Yet this discussion doesn’t have to focus on the particulars of each game. The teacher can ask questions such as, ‘How does the game make you feel?’ or ‘Do you play with friends or strangers online?’ These questions draw upon the children’s experiences and build a picture that can be used to help shape their soft skills.
Understanding the nuance of digital communication is something that every teacher can do, regardless of technical expertise. The power of an emoji to change the meaning of a message is a great example. If an angry or rude emoji is applied to a message, the recipient could respond negatively to it, even if the emoji was applied in error. DJ Koh, the head of Samsung’s IT & Mobile Communications Divisions, boldly pronounced, “Nothing is more important than how emojis are replacing words.” 2 This visual form of electronic communication has been created to help us show empathy but, as with any language, children need to be advised of its power and impact. Replicating this communication style is a great way to teach pupils how to ‘pause’ and ‘consider’ before posting online.
The permanency of digital content, often referred to as a ‘digital footprint,’ is something that children need to be aware of. How they manage their online presence today is likely to follow them into adulthood. Although this is a big responsibility on young shoulders, this is where guidance on how to be good digital citizens comes in as a vital life skill.
The Natterhub approach
It’s important that we don’t assume that children transfer soft skills they readily use face to face into their digital landscape. They need to be explicitly taught to be kind, encouraged to demonstrate empathy and be made aware of the emotion that their messaging may trigger. Honing soft skills gives children the motivation and means to communicate better online, be respectful to others and consider the impact of messages sent in haste. Such skills are also transferable and sought after in the world of work, so this style of teaching and learning has great reach.
The Natterhub approach is different and brings soft skills to the fore to support teachers to open discussions with pupils about their online experiences, whilst in a gated space that emulates social-style interaction. In this immersive environment, children are learning whilst they are doing. The teacher is asking questions to draw upon their knowledge and to shape the soft skills required for them to stay safe and be kind to others online.
Natterhub Co-founder and Chief Product Officer
Caroline is Natterhub’s Co-founder. She is an experienced educator who has taught in both UK and leading international schools. Passionate about immersive learning that creates impact for students, Caroline leads the product development, creative and pedagogy for the Natterhub brand. As founder of the award-winning brand The Pedagogs, Caroline, who is also a parent, initiated and designed the concept for Natterhub in a bid to prepare children to thrive in a blended digital world.