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Why School Needs to Emphasize Soft Skills4 min read

It turns out learning content is not enough to be successful.

Our world needs more people with strong soft skills. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that society could use more critical thinkers, the workplace could use more problem solvers, Washington DC could use more collaborators, and we could all use people who know how to communicate. In fact, the Stanford Research Institute International found that 75% of long-term job success depends on people skills and only 25% on technical knowledge. These soft skills are often what make or break someone’s opportunity at success. The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a study that found the top 5 skills sought by employers are all soft skills.

And yet, the focus on teaching these crucial skills in the educational system is minimal at best. I mean, they’re even call ‘soft skills’ in school, which is odd because there is nothing ‘soft’ about getting fired or never even hired in the workplace. The truth is, if society wants to produce the kind of citizens who possess these essential skills, who know how to communicate, collaborate, critically thinking, empathize, organize, prioritize, and solve problems, then it needs an education system that emphasizes them every single day.

Practice Makes Perfect

Soft skills are like muscles. Part of the way in which we make them stronger is by working them out often. No one is born with a six pack; they have to do crunches. And they can’t just do crunches once a week and expect to look like Chris Hemsworth (believe me, I know). Those muscles have to be worked out regularly. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, Outliers about the necessity of putting in many hours of practice in order to master a certain skill. In fact, he says the key to success in any field requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

If we want our students to be the type of graduates who are well on their way to mastering the essential skills, we have to ask if school is giving them ample opportunities to practice them. More often than not, the answer is no. The education system is systematically opposed to this type of time-dedication. Standardardized testing and college admissions primarily focus on the technical skills and content knowledge, forcing schools to emphasize those instead of the skills that are most valued by employers and society. This gives birth to the skills deficit society is facing, and why the number one reason people are fired or not hired is the lack of soft skills. School needs to become a place where these skills are emphasized as much if not more than other content.

Create Tasks That Require the Development of Soft Skills

This isn’t to say that we need to abolish math class or no longer teach photosynthesis in Biology. We don’t necessarily need to require speech class in all schools to ensure students become communicators, or mandate courses that teach people skills. Instead, we need to find more ways to incorporate tasks that require the development of soft skills in core content classes. Learning content is not enough, students must do something with it; which in return let’s them practice these essential skills.

What if instead of just learning about photosynthesis, students have to work in groups to apply that knowledge to a school garden?

What if students are introduced to a pollution problem in their own community, and have to use critical thinking and algebra in order to solve that problem?

What if instead of just writing persuasive essays in English class for the teacher to read and grade, students wrote persuasive speeches they record, upload to Youtube, and send to politicians petitioning for change?

The content taught in schools is important and still needs to be taught. However, students shouldn’t just learn this subject matter so they can use it later on. Instead, educators have to find ways to make the learning authentic in the present. And when learning is authentic, when there are problems to solve that matter to students at a deeper level, engagement increases and students will do the necessary work of solving those problems. In the process, they will learn the essential skills necessary to solve them.

Soft Skills Should Be Practiced Daily

We don’t have to blow up the education system and get rid of all of the traditional practices we associate with school. Instead, we need to shift the emphasis of the work. Rather than school being a place students get smarter, it becomes a place they master the essential skills. Daily, students should be communicating with each other in a professional setting. Information should not be spoon-fed, but students should learn how to discover it themselves and use it to solve problems. Every class, from gym to geometry, should require collaboration.

If one of the primary purposes of school is to prepare students for the ‘real world,’ then we need to practice skills required by the real world. And we need to practice them daily, just like Chris Hemsworth.

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