We really should be calling ‘soft’ skills hard

Tara Walsh

Tara Walsh, Educational Evangelist at educational media company, Makematic


Tara is an experienced educator who has worked in secondary, tertiary and adult education. She is passionate about educator professional development, democratising education and developing young people to be global citizens.

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We’ve heard it before. The world of work is changing and at a rapid rate. So whether you’re an educator or parent, preparing young people for the world of work comes with a myriad of challenges. 

Researchers, futurists and those in the human resource profession agree that the future world of work will be influenced by things like technology, globalisation and population ageing. But it is soft skills – also known as human, life or employability skills – that are deemed by professionals to be as important, if not more so, than hard or technical skills in the modern day workplace.

The irony is, soft skills are actually really hard to develop. To get good at them takes time and lots and lots of practice. It’s the development of these soft skills in a schools context that I will talk about in this blog.

Why Soft Skills Matter

To successfully function in all aspects of one’s life, soft skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity – also known as the 4Cs – are important. That’s because organisations with employees that have them are, amongst other things, more harmonious and productive.

But of all the soft skills out there, what are the ones that employers desire most in those they hire?

Time and time again, it’s the 4C’s, decision making, resilience, confidence, emotional intelligence, time management and cultural awareness that top the lists.

And it’s these skills that should be the focus in any soft skills programme that is developed in a schools context.

The Best Ways To Develop These Skills

It’s no good talking about the importance of soft skills if we don’t understand the best ways to develop them in young people.

Here the research is pretty clear about the most effective way to develop these skills: explicit instruction and extracurricular activities.

Explicit teaching of soft skills in a classroom is more effective than implicit teaching approaches. But what does that actually look like? In real terms, it means bite-sized explicit teaching activities and continued practice. Which means that even secondary teachers should be able to manage this within crowded curriculums.

Extracurricular activities, however, are more challenging. That’s because there are substantial socioeconomic gaps in access to extracurricular activities. Therefore it won’t surprise you to learn that young people with the best soft skills usually come from independent schools.  

What Interventions Work Best?

According to research conducted by The Sutton Trust, the programmes that have been trialed and look promising at developing soft skills in young people include:

  • Teacher training. Training teachers to improve mindsets and resilience in their students, either in pre-service training or as professional development.
  • Structured after-school clubs. This can include music, sports or social clubs.
  • Social action activities. These can be community or school-based.
  • Social and emotional learning programmes.

Next Steps

Soft skills development should be at the heart of every education system. Education systems in Singapore and Canada are placing increasing importance on character development within their curriculum.

Although it would be great if both the UK government prioritised this also, in the short term there are things that schools can do.

A more focussed whole school approach to the development of these skills is needed – and possible. The development of soft skills should and can be part of the day-to-day curriculum.  

As a former curriculum coordinator at a secondary school, I can tell you that this is possible. But this type of initiative needs to have support from administration. Teachers need to have time to not only understand why it’s important, but more importantly to show them what explicit teaching of these skills looks like. 

For instance, to be a good communicator, you need to be good at a number of communication skills, like listening, reading and writing. These skills can be further broken down into things like active listening.

When we break these important soft skills down into more manageable chunks, explicit teaching of these skills in any context doesn’t look so daunting, does it?

Explore Further

“We must put values and character development at the core of our education system.” Singaporean Education Minister Heng Swee Keat

If you’re at all interested in reading more about this, here are some useful links to get you started.

Character and Citizen Education Singapore

Global Education and Skills Forum

OECD Education 2030

The Sutton Trust - Life Lessons: Improving Essential Life Skills for Young People

World Economic Forum 2017 - Preparing People for the Future of WWorld Economic Forum - Ten Best Countries for Skills and Education

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