In support of the university’s efforts to nurture able communicators amongst our students, this bumper issue features
articles on Developing Our Students’ Communication Skills. It includes introductions to upcoming initiatives by
CDTL and the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) to enhance our students’ ability to communicate
effectively, and also features contributions from colleagues throughout NUS as well as from the industry, in which they
will share communication skills courses or collaborations they are currently running in their respective domains and
the challenges they face in helping their students develop these core skills.
“It’s exciting to believe that we live in times that are so revolutionary that they demand new and different abilities. But in fact, the skills students need in the 21st century are not new.” (Rotherham & Willingham, 2009)
I choose to begin this article with the above statement by Andrew Rotherham (co-founder of the independent education policy think tank Education Sector) and Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia), because I wish to emphasise from the outset that the effective communication skills that are the subject of discussion in this special issue of CDTL Brief are not ‘revolutionary’ in type but are perhaps receiving renewed emphasis in today’s world because we are only waking up (again) to exactly how important such life skills, traditionally called the ‘3 R’s’ (i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic), are in the global marketplace.
A report on general education requirements conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) in 2009 noted that “only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book” (pp.1-2), and that “[e]mployers are increasingly complaining that graduates of four-year colleges lack the writing and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the workplace” (p.2). This situation, I am fairly sure, is not unique to the American context—I believe that Singapore graduates draw the same flak too.
In the context of a knowledge economy and an uncertain global future, it is increasingly important that universities produce graduates who are not so much just skilled in specific knowledge domains (with perhaps the possible exception of professional schools like law and medicine) but nurture students with what have been called ‘21st century skills’, including good communication, thinking and analytical skills—skills that will be applicable and transferable across time and space. The shift in emphasis is therefore one from imparting easily-outdated subject content to dynamically transferable life skills that will stand our students in good stead when they move on into the world of work.
Employers have identified writing and reading comprehension as “very important or important basic skills and knowledge” essential for the global marketplace (ACTA 2009, p.5). But the reality is, within many university curriculum structures, there is seldom (enough) space to accommodate the learning of these crucial life skills. In addition, many professors are simply not equipped, or feel themselves not trained to teach communication skills for instance, over and above their own subject expertise. And for the few professors who are able to coach their students on good oral, written, critical reading and thinking skills, there is simply no time in their crowded syllabus to devote the kind of consistent attention that is needed to make significant inroads. This is the main reason why the teaching of communication skills in many universities is taken out of department and faculty domains and relegated to a communication skills department, such as the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) at NUS. This results especially in a big public university setting, in such communication units not being able to cope with the thousands of students who walk through university corridors on a yearly basis.