Soft skills. Everyone has heard of them, but many people can’t define them. They are called durable skills, professional skills, life skills, enduring skills, career readiness skills and a host of other names. Without a clear understanding of soft skills, we can’t strategically teach and assess them. Developing soft skills in students and your teachers has a great return on investment and leads to academic, personal and professional success.
STEM is a team sport, so including soft skills training as part of your coursework ensures students are learning more than just content. They will also be learning how to work together as a team, to be innovative, to communicate and to regulate group goals.
Why soft skills are a critical missing piece in our education system
When we don’t focus on soft skills, we don’t get our students ready for their future. Below are the top five reasons to start prioritizing soft skill development in your organization.
1. Soft skills improve academic outcomes
Schools tend to look at new curriculum, design improved MTSS models and implement intervention programs to address academic gaps. However, if you aren’t looking at soft skills development, you are missing an important ingredient. The Society for Research in Child Development notes that soft skill training for your students can increase GPA and academic performance by 11%. The Global Labor Organization found that student soft skill training increases graduation rates by 30%. It also increases math testing scores in boys by 7.5% and in girls by 10.7%. Soft skills training also increases assignment completion and performance by 9.3%. Including soft skills training in your Tier 1 MTSS plan is a no-brainer!
2. Teacher soft skills impact student outcomes
Nearly ¾ of employers say they cannot find employees with sufficient soft skills, and the education sector is no different. Stanford Research Center, Harvard University and Carnegie Foundation report that only 15% of our success comes from academic and technical training. The other 85% is due to our soft skills. Because teacher preparation programs do not focus on soft skill development, our teachers do not necessarily have the skills they need to collaborate, implement curriculum or build relationships with students. This skills gap impacts your students’ outcomes. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that teacher soft skills directly impact student dropout rates and graduation rates. It also found teacher soft skill ability directly explains the variance in student absences, suspensions and GPA.
3. Soft skills lead to a happier life
The BESSI Research group reports that soft skills account for nearly 2/3 of our general life happiness. Stress regulation, social warmth, teamwork, anger management, time management and other critical soft skills help us feel more in control of our life. These same skills also allow us to manage our relationships, responsibilities and emotions. They can even impact our health! The University of Chicago found that student soft skills predict health problems in adulthood, even after accounting for social class origins and IQ. In fact, soft skills are a better predictor of financial success and achievement of advanced credentials than social class or IQ.
4. Students cannot be future ready without soft skills
Soft skills are necessary in the workforce. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Report reveals that 89% of recruiters say soft skills are the culprit for a bad hire. Fortune 500 CEOs report that 75% of long-term job success depends on soft skills, while only 25% on technical knowledge. To be ready for their futures, students need soft skills. But they won’t learn them unless we have a strategic way of teaching and assessing them. Wonderlic says 97% of employers say soft skills are essential. Career Education Review cites that only 37% of employers believe their entry-level employees have the necessary soft skills to be successful.
5. Teachers do not know how to teach soft skills
Teachers report they do not have time or the training they need to teach soft skills. If schools are going to truly prepare students for their futures, they need to train their teachers on soft skills. They also need to generate a culture where these skills are valued, reinforced, modeled and assessed. SHRM reports that 51% of employers believe the education system hasn’t helped close the soft skill gap. Schools need to have a common understanding of soft skills and use shared vocabulary and measurements to assess soft skill development. Kelvin, Murray and Company report only 20% of employees feel comfortable talking about soft skills in their performance reviews.
Schools can help teachers and students learn soft skills together and build a culture where these skills are prioritized. The University of Chicago reports that soft skills are a 169% stronger predictor of academic achievement than IQ score. Thus, creating a soft skills culture has a great return on investment, improves school climate and increases student achievement.
It is time to act on the soft skills gap
Our brains learn through repetition, experience and emotion. Developing soft skills needs to be a systematic and strategic initiative that becomes part of a school’s culture and heuristics.
- Develop shared vocabulary
We cannot build skills for which we have no name or clear definition and teachers can be confused about how to teach them. For example, many frameworks include leadership as a skill, but what is leadership? Without a discrete, shared definition, teachers ascribe their own perspectives and students fail to transfer what they learn.
The BESSI Research Group at the University of Illinois recognized this conundrum and did an extensive crosswalk of frameworks used to describe soft skills. They identified 32 skills in five areas and then defined them with concrete, observable terms. BESSI’s skills can clarify the skills you use in your PBIS or college and career readiness efforts. They can also inform how you incentivize and reward skill development. Developing a shared language ensures student learning around these skills is clear and reinforced across all classrooms.
- Provide daily practice
Skills are built by doing. When teachers connect pedagogy to soft skill development, they can help students understand that the process of learning is just as important as the product they produce and the grade they receive. For example, group projects are about more than just dividing up work. They teach students to cooperate with others, enhance teamwork skills, teach responsibility management and require communication and leadership skills. When we connect the process to the skills being developed, students recognize and value the skills they gain by engaging in learning.
STEM is designed for teams, but students often focus on their grade rather than the skills they learned by producing the product. Teachers can identify the soft skills various projects will require and assess groups on how well they demonstrated those skills.
When we measure things, they matter. Therefore, if students assess themselves and others on the process skills used in a group project, they will pay attention to them. For example, consider giving an exit ticket at the end of a class where each student responds to a question such as, “What is one challenge your team overcame today and how?” Only award points to teams where individual answers are similar. This measures whether the team cooperated and communicated. If answers vary, some members of the group were probably disengaged and the group was not learning the cooperation skills.
- Build a skills-focused culture
Descriptions related to school culture are often very conceptual rather than concrete. When schools use shared vocabulary and teachers connect those skills to classroom activities and learning, you are on your way to building a culture where skill development is valued and rewarded.
Teachers are not exempt from the skills gap either. Consider ways you can enhance teacher skill development by having them set professional goals related to their individual skill development. Also have teacher teams rate themselves on the same set of skills they are developing in students.
When teachers and students are learning together, we can amplify the impact of progress. Teachers will become more self-aware, share their skill development experiences with students and model the skills in their classrooms.