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The Educational Value of Fiction About Work

Both employers and teachers are concerned about the lack of ‘soft skills’ among students and young workers. The development of such skills is seldom dealt with in either secondary or higher education, which focus on subject-specific knowledge where students make use of only rational intelligence and cognitive ability.

Soft skills arise from emotional intelligence, the competences that enable people to understand each other in a social context. Unless they are locked in isolated backrooms, everyone at work has to operate in a social context and relate effectively to their peers, bosses, juniors, customers, and other potential contact groups. The lists of specific skills needed to express emotional intelligence vary, but usually include communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, conflict resolution, and time management (working effectively under pressure).

Employers worry that basic social experience in childhood is being lost in a digital age (with its reduction in direct person-to-person contact) and that crowded school and university curricula don’t leave enough space for the development of soft skills. They would also like students to have some preliminary practice with these skills in a context related to their careers before they start on them.

Ways of ‘teaching’ such skills are well established. The best are participation scenarios, where students’ role-play work-related interactions, acquiring experience through gaming and reflection. Other methods use demonstrations of good and poor workplace practice (through short stories or videos for instance), followed by discussion and reflection. But it takes considerable talent to devise these scenarios. There could be an easier way of doing this.

Recent academic work has shown the positive effect of reading literary fiction on general soft skill development among students. This is not surprising since interaction between characters in good literature demonstrates emotional intelligence in action. The use of fiction here could be taken a step further by using profession or trade-specific short stories (or extracts from longer novels) as ready-made material for discussion and analysis for students preparing for specific trades or professions (as it already does, for instance, in medical humanities). While these stories are of course valuable in their own right, they could also have useful educational applications. These are more reasons for valuing work-based stories and for writing more of them.

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