Teaching Soft Skills: The Complete Guideby Becton Loveless
Education is dominated by discussion of the hard sciences these days, with great emphasis placed on STEM instruction. This has left teachers of other subjects, such as art or history, feeling a little left out of the conversation surrounding how to adequately prepare students for future careers. However, even less discussed are the soft skills that students need to succeed once they’re out of college and in the workforce. There are rarely classes designed specifically for soft skills, but that doesn’t mean these skills aren’t important. Soft skills include talents such as creative problem solving that are distinguished from hard skills in a few important ways.
Hard Skills Versus Soft Skills
Hard skills, as opposed to soft skills, are the types of skills that students routinely get taught in school. These are skills that are easily quantifiable. For instance, when a student performs well in school, they receive high marks for grades and, eventually, are awarded a degree demonstrating that they’ve attained a certain level of mastery in those skills. It’s easy to check the degree of mastery over these skills because grades can easily be looked up.
Soft skills are a lot harder to quantify. While you can hand out certificates for skills, like leadership, how do you actually quantify leadership? A grade of 90 in math can represent that a student scored nine out of ten questions right, and those questions can easily be checked and verified. Quantifying and verifying these subjects is easy. Soft skills cannot be quantified and verified with the same ease. However, soft skills are still incredibly important, and schools still need to communicate these topics to students.
When students move beyond school and move into their careers, they’ll list their soft skills the same as they list their soft skills. Hard skills might be listed, such as data analysis or mathematics. Someone applying for a job can point to their degree in these areas, which suggest they made sufficient grades in these areas. However, students will also list soft skills like “detail-oriented” or “leadership.” Since hiring managers look at both hard and soft skills, it’s important for activities to be developed that teach both. Since most students will never find the opportunity to take a class that specializes in teamwork, for example, it falls to teachers to integrate the instruction of soft skills into their existing courses.
Examples of Soft Skills
So, what are some soft skills and how are they used? Every job will prioritize different soft skills, but here are some of the skills that are most frequently identified as necessary in the workforce. Many times, these broad soft skills encompass smaller skills, such that many smaller skills help prepare a student to be successful in broad categories such as teamwork or communication.
Communication skills are important because even if someone is highly skilled in their field, they still need to help their organization succeed. It doesn’t matter how well they perform their individual job if they can’t communicate what they’re doing to others. When communication breaks down, people get confused about what has been done, what needs to be done, and when things are due. This can lead to projects failing as communication comes to a halt.
Effective communication requires individuals to be strong listeners as well as communicators. They need to be able to understand where others stand with regards to finishing a project. Good communicators listen and respond, ensuring that everyone on a team has a solid understanding of work that still needs to be done.
One of the most underrated skills for people to possess is the skill of creativity. People get accustomed to working according to certain rules and routines. While this is sufficient for dealing with most work issues from one day to another, you also need to be able to develop innovative solutions when novel problems arise. Creative individuals are able to work within the limits of their organization in such a way that they conceive new approaches that help improve the way their organization responds to arising issues.
Those with a solid sense of creativity are innovative problem solvers. They have an ability to understand the problems in front of them and the solutions that have previously been used. With an understanding of the issue and previous responses, creative individuals assess what resources are available and develop new approaches to solving the problems within their organization.
A skill that any student will use from school through their career will be the ability to adapt to any given situation. One of the purposes of schools is to get students used to the routine of a day’s work, since for most people, a career will ask them to work on a regular schedule accorded to set hours. It’s easy for students to get used to the structure and routine of a normal day’s work.
However, they also need to be able to adapt in the face of novel circumstances . When sudden change occurs, or unanticipated problems arise, it can leave some students unable to effectively respond. As students learn to be more adaptable, they become better situated to respond to a wide range of problems. A student who learns how to adapt quickly to changing school conditions is better suited to responding in the workplace when new problems arise.
Public speaking stands apart from general communication skills specifically because publicly speaking requires its own unique set of communication skills. When talking in front of others, people need to be able to speak confidently, be clear in their messaging, and use solid logic in their presentation while under the additional pressure of being watched by others.
An effective public speaker understands their audience and how to speak to them. For instance, if speaking to a highly technical audience, they use the lingo that the audience understands. This language can be technical to match the audience and focus on processes that were developed to solve organizational issues. However, for a business-oriented audience, they may need to use less technical language and focus more tightly on what solutions were developed and how they benefited the organization.
The nature of the classroom lends itself to helping develop the soft skill of teamwork. Teamwork requires that students interact with one another toward completing a singular goal. This is something that they’ll often face in the workplace as they’re asked to work toward resolving organizational issues or as they work with others to meet goals set by their employers. Effective teamwork draws together a number of other skills, like communication skills and interpersonal skills, and puts them to use so that these goals can be met.
Part of teamwork also involves understanding the hierarchy of the group. Some people have an assertive leadership style and may feel comfortable organizing how the group will meet their goals. Others might be passive individuals who would prefer to remain in the background and focus on technical details of the project. Regardless of their own personal styles, individuals who learn teamwork skills learn how to use their personal styles for the good of their group rather than for their own good at the expense of the group.
Programs and Activities for Teaching Soft Skills
Unfortunately, when it comes to teaching, some instructors fail to think up ways to integrate these skills into the classroom. In many cases, soft skills are picked up to varying degrees through routine classroom activities. However, there are also specifically designed programs and activities that can help students learn the soft skills that will serve them well in their careers.
Soft Skills to Pay the Bills
Soft skills are considered so important to workplace success that the U.S. Department of Labor has developed its own program, ”Soft Skills to Pay the Bills,” as a curriculum designed to teach those skills to young people. The program is focused on six major skills, including communication, teamwork, networking, professionalism, enthusiasm and attitudes, and problem solving and critical thinking. Each skill is taught using a separate approach that can be found on the Department of Labor’s website.
As only one example, the curriculum for communication skills has several activities that students can participate in that help improve their ability to communicate effectively. In one activity, students are asked to act out a short play, with one student acting as a worker receiving feedback from the second student, who acts as the boss. After the play is over, students are asked several questions about the interaction. How did the first student respond to feedback? How did the second student communicate their concerns?
One more example from the program includes teaching the skill of professionalism. One of the activities presents students with a different image of different people who might be applying for jobs. One image may include someone with many tattoos on their arms while another image includes an older individual in a wheelchair. The students are then asked to reflect on the perceptions people might have of these people. Interviewers may ask each individual different questions based on the image they present, for better or worse.
Students might also be asked why older individuals might be reluctant to apply for a job, including fears that their managers will be younger than them. These questions are designed around the idea of getting students to think about issues that might arise in the workplace based on various issues including age gaps, appearances, and other factors.
The Association for Middle Level Education
An organization committed to helping students develop soft skills is the Association for Middle Level Education. Their emphasis is on the seven skills of integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility, and teamwork. These skills are slightly different from those listed in the “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills” program, so teachers might want to consider the differences between the two skill lists and which they feel they can best instruct in the classroom.
The AMLE maintains several resources on its website that teachers can reference when trying to integrate soft skills instruction into their teaching. For instance, it maintains links that can help teachers instruct soft skills specifically among students with disabilities. Approaches to disabled students include encouraging more conversations between families in the home or introducing students to people who are different from them. The first task can help improve communication skills and the second can improve interpersonal skills.
Other resources that the school maintains include lists of a broader range of soft skills that students might find useful in the workforce, videos that demonstrate why certain soft skills are important in the workplace, and links to discussions about how soft skills are applied once a person has taken a job. Resources even include documents about why personal appearance is important and how it factors into workplace success. The AMLE acts as a sort of broad connection to several resources that can give teachers ideas about how to communicate with students about the importance of soft skills
Time Management Activity
Time management is something that all students should learn since they’ll need to use it both in school and when they’ve entered the job force. Students have to learn to balance different class assignments in school, but they’ll also need to learn how to balance different job duties. The time management challenge can help students learn how to respond to these challenges.
The challenge is straight forward. The teacher writes a list of different activities but then weights those activities. Each activity is weighted by assigning a certain number of points to them. Teachers should take care to come up with enough activities to take up more than 10 minutes. Finally, students break up into groups and are given a copy of the activities. It’s then up to the students to collect as many points as possible within the 10-minute limit.
This activity is actually good for a few reasons. First, it asks the students to work together, emphasizing the same teamwork that they’ll need to demonstrate in the workplace. Second, students need to communicate in order to win the challenge by accumulating the most points of any group. Of course, the third reason why it’s a successful activity is because it asks students to balance the list of challenges against their time limit. They’re asked to prioritize which activities have the most value against which activities they can reasonably complete in a limited time. This challenge can be adapted to almost any class. Time limits can be longer than 10 minutes and tasks can include subject specific tasks that ask students to complete certain activities, like looking up historical information or completing a quick writeup of a science topic. It’s up to the teacher to properly balance the time limit, activities, and points awarded.
Active Listening Activity
Good listening habits help students to become better communicators, so teaching active listening is fundamental to preparing students for the workplace. Active listening can be taught in a number of ways but always involves making sure that a student is highly engaged. Students can pair off, for example, with one student acting as communicator and another acting as listener. Generally, students should adhere to certain principles during the activity, and these principles should be communicated clearly by the teacher before these activities begin. Students should bring a nonjudgmental approach to the student and ask them probing questions that explore the student’s understanding of a topic.
In actual practice, one student may be asked to speak on a certain topic. The topic can be randomized from a deck of cards that each contain a topic. The speaking student can then begin their presentation to the listener. It’s up to the listener to respond by engaging deeply with the presentation and following up with appropriate questions.
The activity can be adapted to the classroom in certain ways. Students might be assigned random topics, but they may be given a little time in the class to research their topic, whether the class be about anything from literature to engineering. This can help develop some quick research skills over time. Then, with the research done, the speaking student can give their presentation. Then, students exchange roles so that the listener becomes the speaker and talks about the topic they were randomly given.
The important part of the active listening activity is the use of follow up questions. Listeners should pay attention to the material they’re hearing and respond with questions that explore the topic a little more deeply. This active communication may help improve learning outcomes by emphasizing individual research, communication of school subjects, and active listening to better understand new information.
Learn more about active listening.
Soft skills are more important than ever for success in the workforce, given that the modern work environment places such a high priority of teamwork and communication. However, the modern school curriculum leans very heavily on teaching hard skills. As such, it falls to teachers to find ways of integrating soft skills into their current instruction.
Teachers can get an idea for how to integrate soft skills into their instruction from several resources. However, there are always going to be some general principles to follow. Teachers should create or adapt existing activities so that there is a heavy emphasis on group work, independent research, communication between peers, time management, and presentation. By placing a strong emphasis on group dynamics, teachers can mimic the sort of work environment that many students will find themselves in once they leave school behind for the workforce.
Teachers won’t always have the time to tailor make activities that perfectly integrate hard skills and soft skills. However, once you’ve identified a few key activities, you can adapt new lessons to integrate these same activities to future lessons. That can help keep your preparation time down while still creating the kind of integrated activity that helps students not only improve their content knowledge but the ability to apply that knowledge in the workplace.