July 9, 2019 by

Reclaiming soft skills

Written by Sean Slade and Phil Lambert

We, like many others in the fields of education, youth development, social, emotional, and whole child learning dislike the term “soft skills.” The term, either purposefully or inadvertently, downgrades a core set of skills and makes them seem less serious or less worthy of consideration in education policy circles.

It’s worth examining why “hard skills” and “soft skills” were deemed as such. The skills given high status and seen, either by default or emphasis, as “hard skills” included discipline-based procedures and knowledge such as multiple equations and formulae, parsing and comprehension, historical points, and the periodic table.

These “hard skills” were tangible things that students could learn. They were recognized as sharp, succinct, rigid, and largely factual. Teachers and education systems could deliver, practice, and test these – you either knew this stuff or you didn’t. There was, in theory, no wiggle room and no space for conjecture — it was right or wrong.

In many ways, these were the technical matters that all students were taught for a specific purpose. In many countries and classrooms these are still taught and tested regardless of whether one needs them beyond school or not. Math is replete with these hard skills. Much of what has been taught in high school mathematics, as a subject area, is “school” math rather than the kind of mathematics required for life and work.

Those other skills which comprised initially the less tangible, less defined, and less measurable were deemed to be “soft” and along with that phrase came the interpretation that these skills were also less important. If something is hard then a conclusion is drawn that it’s rigorous or logical; if something is soft, it is weak or of little to no consequence. At least that has been the general understanding.

And, as a consequence, many of us have railed against the term “soft skills” because its very label has undermined its importance and value to the learning process – both what is being learned and how it is being learned.

A Terminal Terminology Battle

We have suggested a multitude of other terms to replace “soft skills,” including power skills, core skills, essential skills, life skills, human skills, or people skills. Yet, even after a decade of trying to change minds and perceptions, no other term has taken root.

No other term can be understood without a clarifying paragraph. The general public understand what “soft skills” stands for. They understand it refers to “…a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, 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” (Wikipedia).

Despite the primacy of these skills and dispositions for life, social cohesion and work, the stigma of soft, rather than hard, holds.

However, the value of soft skills has been elevated in recent years by global agencies whose grasp of what is essential and pressing in need is unquestionable. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, cites the imperative for countries to readdress these skills and push them to the fore across their schooling systems as the skills required by industry, individuals, and societies.

Students will need to apply their knowledge in unknown and evolving circumstances. For this, they will need a broad range of skills, including cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (e.g. critical thinking, creative thinking, learning to learn and self-regulation); social and emotional skills (e.g. empathy, self-efficacy and collaboration); and practical and physical skills (e.g. using new information and communication technology devices). (OECD, The Future of Education & Skills, Education 2030, The Future We Want, 2018, p.6)

This mirrors earlier calls from others such as the Brookings Institute, UNESCO and KnowldegeWorks. Added to this are concerns expressed by experts such as Guy Berger, chief economist with LinkedIn, who has found employers struggle to find candidates with the soft skills required for the majority of their jobs. Berger has identified two reasons for what he describes as a misalignment between supply and demand: the shift from manufacturing to service industries and from routine jobs to non-routine jobs.

Time to Reclaim and Recast

We believe the time has come for the field to own the term “soft skills,” rather than fight against its use. We believe it’s time to reclaim, and readjust, its meaning and focus. Much in the way many minority groups have reclaimed and redefined terms that have been designed to denigrate, we should be able to re-appropriate a term that merely misinforms. We must keep the term and adjust the meaning to be more positive and aligned to what our students and societies need.

And this is not a huge task because the term itself has many positive attributes.

Soft skills refer to the same set of skills they always have. They encompass creativity, problem solving, creating meaning, and use the processes of communication, personal and group interaction, and consensus building. They encapsulate an understanding of group dynamics, of social and emotional well-being, and of team building.

Yet they are not the “nice to have” skills, but, rather, the “must have” skills. The way we use information in the future, as well as the way we create new meanings and new ideas, will be critical. Information is still important, but in this century the role of utilizing that information and adapting it to new and varied situations will be paramount.

Soft skills will, increasingly, become the skills of priority. These are not new, but they are newly important. What is new are the large scale social, economic, environmental and technological changes that have taken place across the planet, elevating soft skills as essential learning in schools.

Soft skills are fluid, malleable, and resilient  

In order to reframe soft skills, we simply need to look at what these skills are doing and how they are to be used. Soft skills are fluid, malleable, adjustable, and adaptable. They are able to be used across a multitude of situations and circumstances time and time again. They fill the spaces left by the rigid frame of standard hard skills making sense of the information and in turn flowing into new and unexpected meaning.

Hard skills are defined by facts and testable information. They can be illustrated as old, heavy, non-dynamic, static, and not suited (nor needed) for every situation. Many of these skills are being redefined as antiquated or at least not essential for every learner as new information grows exponentially each year. Hard skills are the non-transferable, linear, one directional, or mono purpose skills. Think old school building, bricks-and- mortar, memorization. They are becoming old, antiquated, and crumbling as newer (fluid) skills glide right past them and fill the gaps.

Soft skills are not only here to stay, but, rather, they are necessary and required. Education will only continue to become more fluid, more malleable, more personable. Rather than arguing over newer terminology, we believe it is time for us all to reclaim, reappropriate and recast the definition of soft skills to match the education processes and systems we are in the midst of creating.

About the authors

Sean Slade is the Senior Director of Global Outreach at ASCD, a Washington, D.C.-abased global education association, promoting and advocating for a Whole Child approach to education.

Dr. Phil Lambert is an education consultant based in Sydney, Australia. He provides leadership and expert advice in national curriculum reform globally and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney and Nanjing University.

Both are part of the OECD’s Future of Education & Skills 2030 working group.