Building Global Bridges With You

What we should already learn today for the world of tomorrow

25.10.2021
3/2021 EN
  • Study

How can young people be prepared to help shape society? What does it take during uncertain times to rise to challenges? An interview with Executive Board member Reto Steiner, the ZHAW linguist Liana Konstantinidou and GDI future researcher Jakub Samochowiec.

What do you need to be able to do today that you didn’t learn during your university studies?

Liana Konstantinidou: For me, it is primarily entrepreneurship skills. While my studies in linguistics at the humanistically oriented Aristotle University of Thessaloniki necessitated the critical analysis of subject content and analytical thinking, I would like to have had more drive instilled in me to break away from established structures. Fortunately, my father owned a grocery shop where I helped out and was able to acquire skills that gave me a firmer footing in life: here, I learned to find solutions in difficult situations, not to give up straight away and, above all else, to gear my actions towards the needs of customers. I didn’t get much of this during my studies.  

“I would add multilingual and intercultural competencies as basic skills and certainly civic competencies in the sense of democratic citizenship.”

Liana Konstantinidou

Reto Steiner: I studied economics at the University of Bern where I qualified as a secondary school teacher for economics and law. Generally speaking, I have the impression that I can still use today what I learned back then. 

But time has not stood still.

Steiner: Professional skills have of course changed in the 25 years since I graduated. However, I acquired skills at the time that allow me to add new strings to my bow and enhance my education profile. What I didn’t get is practical knowledge gained from experience, although this isn’t possible at a university. My focus was on human resources and organisation, i.e. leadership. However, there are no cookbook recipes for what makes good leadership. Instead, you have to transfer the knowledge that you have acquired into everyday life and specific leadership situations. I have only built up this experiential knowledge over the course of the past 20 years of leading and supporting others.

What about you, Mr Samochowiec?

Jakub Samochowiec: A very important point that was neglected during my studies, and continues to be in both degree programmes and at schools, was the opportunity to learn how to make decisions. I can judge this from my own personal study experience, from my experience as a lecturer at the University of Basel and from the perspective of students who have sought us out at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute to help with researching topics. 

“A very important point that is neglected during degree programmes is the opportunity to make decisions.”

Jakub Samochowiec

What do you base this on?

Samochowiec: A great deal is already pre-determined by the universities. If you are allowed to choose one topic from a list of ten for a presentation, that is already a lot. It is thus also difficult for students to think up a topic for their Bachelor’s thesis that interests them in a completely free and independent manner. At the GDI, we once had a visit by students from a Zurich university who interviewed us for a semester paper on the issue of age. When I enquired as to how they came up with the topic, they answered that their lecturer had assigned it to them. So they weren’t even allowed to choose it themselves. 

How can young people learn to make good decisions?

Samochowiec: This requires introspective skills: you need to be able to listen to yourself and observe yourself in order to find out what you actually want. And it takes courage to tackle something new despite the risk of failure.

Is everything set out in advance at the ZHAW, Ms Konstantinidou, Mr Steiner?

Steiner: I wouldn’t overgeneralise the situation like this. It also depends on the degree programme. In the area of business administration, it is essential that students are able to make decisions, doing so in a manner that is based on facts and justified. What you can’t learn, however, is the specific consequences that these decisions have. I only realised this when I started a business myself. After a year, I had four employees whose wages I had to pay. However, my clients didn’t pay their consultancy fees. It was only at this point that I found out what it means if liquidity is lacking.

“Students should dare to enter the professional world with courage and vigour.»

Reto Steiner

Konstantinidou: The tool for making evidence-based decisions, this is something that we also provide our students in the School of Applied Linguistics. In my opinion, however, we do not equip them sufficiently for making decisions in unforeseen situations. In Switzerland, when something takes the usual course or can be planned, there are often also perfect solutions. But as soon as greater flexibility and adaptability are needed, we are less creative or resilient. We are quite spoiled.

Mr Steiner, are we spoiled and inflexible?

Steiner: We like to have certainty. This is a primal need of us as humans. And especially in societies where material prosperity is largely guaranteed, the willingness to deal with uncertainty tends to be lower. However, this is important for innovation and entrepreneurial action: the latter means being agile when faced with uncertainty and daring to do something. Students should dare to enter the professional world with courage and vigour. It is for this reason that we want to further develop the ZHAW in line with the concept of an entrepreneurial university. 

Reading and writing are considered the key to development. What other basic skills are required?

Konstantinidou: Today, I would add multilingual and intercultural skills. These are important due to increasing mobility. Civic competencies in the sense of democratic citizenship are also required. This means possessing political knowledge and an understanding of how power works at a local, regional, national or global level. This is the only way that you can help shape society. 

Steiner: In 2020, the WEF named seven skills in its study “The Future of Jobs”: analytical thinking, an active life-long learning strategy, the ability to develop strategies for solving complex problems, originality and initiative, leadership skills and social influence and, last but not least, making use of technology for the benefit of humanity. As a university, I think that we have an obligation to provide our students with such basic skills. 

Samochowiec: While reading and writing are massively important, the ability to read statistics is just as important these days. This has also become clear now during the pandemic. For example, we are told that so and so many of those infected have already been vaccinated. However, this doesn’t take account of the base rate, i.e. how many people have already been vaccinated. We thus get a distorted picture. To understand the world today, which is based on so many numbers, you have to be able to read statistics.

“I believe there are two basic skills that are essential for lecturers: you have to like people and remain curious.”

Reto Steiner, Dean of the School of Management and Law, ZHAW

Konstantinidou: As linguists, we now also have a broader understanding of reading and writing, adopting a multimodal approach: texts comprise, among other things, a combination of letters, emojis, numbers, acoustic elements, videos, images, etc.

Steiner: Today, reading and writing are absolutely essential basic skills for both students and professionals. They need to be able to filter out what is relevant from the huge volume of information and data they are confronted with, identifying what they need to help make smart decisions. Statistical skills are also required. On the other hand, writing is also essential: this is because you have to be able to communicate with society, employees or your colleagues. I notice gaps in the repertoires of students here. Their writing skills often don’t allow them to get to the heart of what they want to say and to get their ideas across in a way that resonates with their lecturers. This can result in conflicts or incorrect decisions being taken.

Konstantinidou: I am glad that it isn’t me as a linguist who has to say that reading and writing are very important (laughs).

“It also takes courage to leave gaps. You don’t have to be an expert everywhere.»

Liana Konstantinidou, Co-Director of the Institute of Language Competence, ZHAW

Ms Konstantinidou, this dilemma posed by poor reading and writing skills is addressed by two of your projects, one in a vocational school setting and the other in the university environment. What were your observations here?

Konstantinidou: I will start with the projects set in a vocational school context. The apprentices here are also potential students of ours, provided they attain their vocational school-leaving certificate. We find that reading and writing is a challenge for many who attend vocational schools. And this isn’t only the case for those who are foreign or come from multilingual backgrounds, but rather also for many completing apprenticeships with lower academic demands. In some cases, they lack basic skills, such as the ability to formulate simple sentences.  By adopting new approaches, we are attempting to provide them with better support in developing their reading and writing skills, for example by emphasising the importance of specialist teaching that is language sensitive. This means that those who teach these subjects provide the apprentices with linguistic support, allowing them to better understand complex subject matter, for instance. 

And what about writing?

Konstantinidou: We observe the same even more pronouncedly with writing skills. This is the case, for instance, when it comes to professional or argumentative texts. Here, new teaching methods are no longer primarily placing an emphasis on grammatical or orthographical correctness, but rather on efficient communication that is appropriate for the addressee. However, we also notice gaps among students when it comes to writing academic texts.

How can you help in the university context?

Konstantinidou: In the project “Digital Literacy Skills in University Context”, we are investigating the use of digital writing support tools such as intelligent tutoring, automatic feedback and machine translation. These tools aim to support students and lecturers with their writing, making the process more efficient. It is primarily about the reflective use of digital writing support tools and not about these tools taking over the writing process completely. After all, academic writing is important. It also shows whether someone is able to think in a structured and systematic way.

Mr Samochowiec, you have developed four future scenarios and identified corresponding future skills. Are there any that are common to all four scenarios?

Samochowiec: The message that comes out of our “Future Skills” report is that the less certain the future is, the less you can rely on certain guidelines that are given by authorities or based on traditions. There is thus all the more reason to act in a self-determined way. We have roughly divided the skills required to this end into three categories, namely “knowing,” “wanting,” and “doing.” “Knowing” because in order to shape the future you need to know the present. “Wanting” is important because goals are essential for shaping the future. And last but not least, you have to implement what you want. This is where “doing” comes in: this requires self-efficacy, the belief that you can change something. However, practical skills are also required to implement decisions in the group. These range from manual skills right through to organisational and social skills.

On the one hand, there are now so many opportunities to acquire skills. On the other, many people also feel a kind of powerlessness, as if they are being left behind: digitalisation is happening whether they like it or not. How can this attitude be counteracted?

Steiner: It is like a mountain tour. If the guide says “we are about to reach the summit” and pushes everyone to up the pace so that they reach their goal as quickly as possible, it is of little help to those at the other end of the rope team, as they are already exhausted. You therefore have to pick people up where they are and support them in moving forward. This also applies to us as a university.

“If you combine theory and practice, you not only experience a very specific sense of achievement that is based on the judgement of a person in authority. Instead, the feeling of success comes from you yourself.”

Jakub Samochowiec, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI)

Konstantinidou: For me, literacy is a dynamic term. It changes. The way in which skills are expressed also changes depending on the context. It also takes courage to leave gaps. You don’t have to be an expert everywhere. Individuals should not only act according to what society expects, but rather be able to decide for themselves how they want to shape their life so that they can achieve Aristotelian happiness. Everybody can contribute differently to the overall good with their abilities and virtues – within the framework of society, of course.

Samochowiec: There is a wonderful quote from the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman that states that “the real problem of our time is not that we are not doing well or that we might do worse in the future. The real problem is that we can’t imagine anything better.” We thus aren’t faced with an end of history, but rather an end of ideas.

Why is this the case?

Samochowiec: This basic attitude is already formed during childhood. The time of young children is already planned out in great detail: children’s birthday parties, piano lessons, judo classes, etc. There is no room to experiment here, to develop self-efficacy and to realise that you can do something. I heard a nice story from a teacher: during the lockdown, two boys built a raft by a pond. The first one sunk pretty quickly. However, the second one held to some extent. I think that these kids learned a great deal here. They didn’t do so based on a classical school curriculum, but rather simply because they were bored. You can create such freedom for experimentation during your free time. But there could also be more of this in both a school and university setting. If you combine theory and practice, you not only experience a very specific sense of achievement that is based on the judgement of a person in authority. Instead, the feeling of success comes from you yourself: I can do something.

As a university of applied sciences, we are not doing too badly with our practice-oriented training programmes. But what does the change in basic skills mean for our teaching staff?

Steiner: It is essential that lecturers adapt what and how they teach as requirements change. It is important that they incorporate current issues into their teaching in order to arouse interest in young people to participate in the search for solutions to social problems.  

When it comes to using digital tools and services, students often have superior knowledge than their lecturers.

Steiner: Lecturers who are active in the area of continuing education, in particular, know very well what it means when students have an edge in terms of their knowledge. In such cases, you have to be humble and accept the fact that there are people sat there who have far greater knowledge in a specific field. What is key is that this knowledge and these skills of the participants can be used in a profitable manner during the class. The university should provide support to its teaching staff with respect to digitalisation, and we are also doing a lot in this regard. However, lecturers shouldn’t be afraid of not being able to meet future requirements. After all, teaching and learning will ultimately always take place as part of an interaction between people. I therefore believe there are two basic skills that are essential for lecturers: you need to like people, on the one hand, while remaining curious, on the other. If you like the students, want to support and encourage them in their personal development and, at the same time, are curious to understand the world, you will also be well-positioned in 30 years’ time.

Konstantinidou: If we want to promote the skills mentioned so far, then it is not only the lecturers who will impart knowledge. Instead, knowledge will be built together by lecturers, students and external experts. This is a different form of teaching and learning.

So teaching and learning is not a one-way street.

Samochowiec: It is important to emphasise that it is not only as part of this two-way relationship between lecturers and students that knowledge and skills can be imparted. If you allow freedom in learning, you inevitably reach a point where the lecturer has to say: I can’t help you any more there, as I am not familiar with it. Co-creation can then also mean that lecturers help students in finding the right people for their problem: there might be someone else at the same or another university or alumni who are working on this issue.

Finally, a personal question: What skills would you still like to develop yourself? 

Samochowiec: We are all learning new basic skills all the time. I have a daughter who is a few months old. I still have a lot of new things to learn here, including patience and empathy. I’d also like to be able to play the guitar better and learn to better understand economic contexts.

Konstantinidou: Less fear of numbers in an economic context, that would also be something for me.

Steiner: I would like to be able to speak Chinese and sing better