5. Soft Skills
A Missing Component in our Core Curriculum
There is a large component missing in our traditional education today and it is soft skills. Soft skills are becoming ever more important in society today, whether it be in the work place, every day interactions with others, or communication between friends and loved ones.
But soft skills aren’t taught in school. There’s no class in elementary, middle, or high school that teaches students about self confidence. There’s no class that teaches about failure. There’s no class that is designed for the sole purpose of teaching influencing via leadership or empathetic communication methods such as non-violent communication.
Why are we not teaching in school these skills that can be used by everybody? All of this should be introduced at a young age as tools to navigate life. It is already important to consider in elementary school, or even earlier, when students start having unguided conversations and communications with others.
Soft skills is now a large part of self development and is a significant part of the learning curriculum once we become adults. It’s the one thing that every adult should look into if it was missing from their education because a large amount of soft skills will be useful to every single person in the world.
The goal of this chapter is to describe what a curriculum might include if soft skills are integrated into the core of it and why soft skills is a more important part of the curriculum than traditional skills that are taught.
The opening paragraph for Soft Skills on Wikipedia does a great job of defining Soft Skills: Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes,1 social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.2 The Collins English Dictionary defines the term "soft skills" as "desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude."3
When we look at a lot of newer education frameworks today, we see many that prioritize these soft skills rather than what we traditionally learn in school because these are the skills that people are looking for when they hire. It is rarely ever true that a student graduating from school will have all the skills they need to do for their work or their job, thus it is often more important to have a good attitude and the ability to learn on the job.
One of my favorite education frameworks comes from Tony Wagner. Wagner compiled the 7 Survival Skills that are required to find success in today’s workplace. The below is taken directly from Wagner’s website [http://www.tonywagner.com/7-survival-skills/]:
- critical thinking and problem solving
- “The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills. You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”—Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies
- collaboration across networks and leading by influence
- “The biggest problem we have in the company as a whole is finding people capable of exerting leadership across the board…Our mantra is that you lead by influence, rather than authority.”—Mark Chandler, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco
- agility and adaptability
- “I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business…I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”—Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards
- initiative and entrepreneurship
- “For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people…who can find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.”—Mark Maddox, Human Resources Manager at Unilever Foods North America
- effective oral and written communication
- “The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations. It’s a huge problem for us.”—Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems
- accessing and analyzing information
- “There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.”—Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell
- curiosity and imagination
- “Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do whatever the employer wants…but actually, you would like him to come up with an interpretation that you like—he’s adding something personal—a creative element.”—Michael Jung, Senior Consultant at McKinsey and Company
This list is comprised entirely of soft skills because these are the skills that are required in an age where knowledge is available at your fingertips. These are also the skills that are necessary as when enter an era where automation will take over a lot of the repetitive tasks that humans do today. Thus, the skills listed by Wagner can be encompassed by the Central Philosophy of the 3 Connections and the ability to learn.
Learning is a life time endeavor and schools should be providing students with the tools to learn, not just the content. The important skills involve learning how to leverage that knowledge and then how you use that knowledge in different situations rather than the knowledge itself. It follows the old adage of “Give a man a fish, they eat for a day. Teach the man how to fish, they eat for a lifetime.” Let’s start teaching our students how to skillset that will allow them to continue to grow even after school.
The most interesting thing to consider is how much of an impact a formalized education in soft skills can affect the current school environment. Issues that can be found in schools including bullying, discipline issues, and ADHD/focus issues can all be addressed with classes around soft skills.
Bullying is often times caused by a lack of confidence from the bully, not the bullied. That lack of confidence that is generated due to either expectations directed at them can create a hole that they have resolved to fill by displaying worth via putting down others. Bullying can be addressed through courses in self confidence in self worth and helping students better understand how to deal with expectations and how to love themself for who they are.
In schools today, instead of addressing and trying to solve the underlying issues around bullying, we take the easy route and issue out punishments, hoping that the negative incentive will magically help students understand where their faults lie. That’s just not how people work and it’s not the most effective way to help students change for the better.
It is also very normal to see a lack of discipline in students, whether it’s being late to classes all the time, lack of responsibility towards the work assigned to them, or just pure laziness. Targeted classes focused around raising discipline would be very helpful. This can include classes teaching the concept of discipline, classes that practice discipline (i.e. physical training, mental training), teaching the concept of grit, teaching about habits and habit building, etc.
For focussing issues, we often diagnose kids with ADHD and then leave it at that. Why are we not giving them programs that help them deal with these issues? Learning to calm their minds through meditation, building their resistance to instant gratification, guiding them away from the addictive natures of social media and technology, teaching them about how addictions form, and teaching them how technology uses gamification to entice them. With this knowledge available to them, students can make better choices on how solve their focussing issues.
Targeting the actual skills involved in strong self development will solve a lot of the problems we encounter in school today. Building self confidence and self worth and helping students deal with emotional issues through knowledge is so important to their general growth. Systematically helping students understand themselves and those around them better, we might have been able to prevent tragedies similar to Columbine and all the school shootings that have happened in the past couple decades.
During the school years from day care, nursery, kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, and finally college and university, we were never formally taught soft skills. Large amounts of the soft skills that we learned in school were through the unstructured parts of school: lunch, recess, friendships, bullying, etc.
So why wasn’t it taught? There are three main reasons. One of them is that they are not measurable by traditional means. We do not have a way to define someone’s ability in self-confidence or resilience with a number. Without these measurements, there is no way to determine which students are excelling and which students are not. Without being able to filter students, there is no way to determine which students can go to elite schools and colleges and which students cannot.
The second reason is that our current education curriculum was based on a time when education was used to create human robots. Language, arithmetic, and basic sciences were all skill that were necessary for basic white collar work. This can be highlighted during the expansion of the British Empire. People who successfully finished their K-12 education could become part of the cogs in any part of the empire because they had the basic skills to be successful in implementing the administrative needs of such a large empire before the existence of computers.
The last reason is because no curriculum has been created for it before. Self development or personal development has seen significant growth in the past couple decades as finding success in the real world has increasingly become about soft skills. An arsenal of hard skills just isn’t going to cut it because our world is more interconnected than ever, thanks to computers and the internet. Communication and collaboration are absolutely required and soft skills help tremendously on that front.
Soft skill content build heavily off of the central philosophy of Connection 1 & Connection 2. Connecting with Yourself and Connecting with Others are both centered around soft skills and the idea is that every student should become well-versed in this content.
The first set of soft skills build off of Connection 1 from the Core Philosophy and is the most lacking in today’s education system.
To reiterate, the fundamentals of connecting with yourself revolves around the idea that one needs to understand and be able to control one’s self.
Understanding yourself includes understanding your:
- strengths and weaknesses
- likes and dislikes
- wants and desires
To be able to act upon one’s self requires the development of:
- open mindedness
- self control
- self respect
Making a conscious effort to teach this in school will provide students with a vocabulary for expressing themselves properly and effectively as well as help build core skills that will stick around with the for the rest of their life.
Course on Self Taught much like a history class, the goal of it is to explore the different ideas around the self. Who are you, what do you like, what do you dis-like, what do you want, what do you need, what do you fear, how do you feel, etc. This is a class focused on asking the questions to explore and understand who you are.
Course on Self-Control and Self-Discipline What is Self-Control? What is self-discipline, and what is self-respect? The course should introduce these terms and then put them into practice through various activities to help students understand what it means to consciously make the decisions to be in control of their own decisions.
Course on Self-Respect and Self-Love A rampant problem regardless of age, a course on self-respect and self-love, teaching the ideas around how to appreciate one’s self, can be very effective in developing emotional independence and grounded-ness. The content of the course should start with basic definitions and then move into experiential experiments and reflections from the students.
Course on Resilience Resilience and grit are very fascinating soft skills that can provide a strong baseline on whether or not someone has the ability to succeed. To simplify the idea of resilience, it can be described as the ability to not be afraid to fail. The course would be focused around developing the mental and emotional stability in the face of failure. This course will help students learn to be not afraid of taking risks, which in turn provides them with more opportunities to succeed. The resilience class is taught by making students fail and try again. After failing, it’s up to the students to figure out how to stand up and try again with a different approach or a different project. The amazing thing about this is that anything can be chosen as the project. There are opportunities to teach music, arithmetic, logic, and anything that might be potentially hard to do for a student.
In addition to examples listed from Connection 1, I want to briefly bring up Connection 2 as well. Connection 2 courses will focus around communication and how to connect with others. As a reminder, these ideas involve:
- the golden rule (treat people how you would like to be treated)
- being right vs. being wrong
- everyone’s truth
- respecting others
- mutual relationships
- how to be likable
- being polite
Course on Non-Violent Communication A very obvious course to teach is non-violent communication by Marshall Rosenberg. It is way of communicating that teaches empathy, sympathy, respect, and leadership, on top of being a very effective way to communicate. Non-violent communication allows people to respectfully share their needs and desires while taking into consideration the other person’s needs, wants, desires, and fears; therefore allowing for a grounded conversation that takes into consideration the points of views of both sides.
This is an absolutely valuable skill that a majority of the population is lacking in and systematic teaching of this content will greatly improve interpersonal communication and relationships.
Assuming we don’t do anything about instituting formal soft skills development, we will see a more and more disconnected world. That’s because there are now many options of staying disconnected.
Before, people were forced to interact with each other, whether it be at the grocery store, restaurants, coffee shop, work place, etc. But in the coming decades, you won’t need to meet anybody when you buy something. You won’t need a human waiter when you go to a restaurant. There won’t be a human barista at the coffee shop, and you won’t need to work in an office full of people. This means there will be fewer and fewer necessary interactions with humans. It will all be designed around convenience and ease of use, which means fewer human interactions. This means less communication practice.
We can already see it in the youth of China today. Live streaming is a phenomenon created by people who are uncomfortable with face to face interactions. Whether it’s fear or rejection or fear of revealing who they are due to a lack of self confidence, it’s common for people to hide behind the computer screen to feel safe during interactions.
This population will become largely useless in our society of the future unless we can help them be able to communicate and develop the soft skills that they are lacking.
I think it’s important to state that I am not advocating for replacing hard skills with soft skills, but rather that there should be a shift in prioritization. Our interest is in making hard skills become optional to allow for students to be able to pick and choose what they are actually interested in while centering the core curriculum around soft skills that will be useful to every student in the future.
To play devil’s advocate, many might think that centering a curriculum around soft skills will make it so that students have a lot of difficulty with hard skills because there is less time spent on hard skills. This is, without a doubt, true. At the same time, we need to understand that a large amount of the hard skills being taught are a complete waste of time either due to the student’s lack of interest or the fact that technology is moving faster than the pace at which academia can keep up with the content that is being taught. By decreasing the amount of wasted time in school and more deliberate learning because the students are actually interested in what they are studying, we massively increase learning speed and ability. A simple question to ask is how many classes have you taken during your school years that you weren’t interested in? How much of the content do you really remember?
Traditional education was more about memorization of knowledge. The issue is that much of the knowledge that was taught in school were not relevant in the real world. How often do I use Calculus. How often do I need to know about the Gettysburg Address or the Battle of Gettysburg? How often do I need to know about rocks in nature or understanding the chemical reaction of Magnesium and Water?
All of that knowledge is useful, but does everyone really need to know the same thing? Wouldn’t it make more sense for this to be the Extra Curricular courses? Different students can choose to focus on different extra curricular courses based on their interests and passion. This allows them to build a more in depth understanding of the subject and it will allow students to be able to spend time on subjects to fully learn it. This includes giving students the time and space to work on individual and team projects, leaning towards individual learning and project based learning.