Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Soft Skills

I almost posted a spicier question. But as I typed up the explanation, I realized that the setup was as discussion-worthy as the question itself, and it made more sense to deal with the setup question first. Tune in next week for what I hope to be a controversial question (hint: it has to do with a soft skill that is never discussed as a soft skill, because it has less to do with being a good employee, and more to do with being a good citizen). 

A couple years ago, we began hearing more and more talk about the importance of teaching “soft skills.” As I have heard the term used, it generally applies to character traits considered as skills, such as the oft discussed “grit,” or interpersonal skills. In short, they are a set of skills that are important for the development of individuals that are not traditionally taught in the classroom, but that are expected of students and employees.

I take it the motivation for teaching soft skills was the recognition that many of our students lacked soft skills, and that even if they were bright, they may not be “moving” in the way. Traditionally, soft skills are merely expected of people, without any training. They are “common sense,” and a bright but unruly student might be told to “get with the program” if they lack soft skills. If a person possesses strong soft skills, that individual is much more likely to know how to present themselves, organize their life in a productive manner, how to conduct themselves in an interview, how to articulate their speech, etc, etc. An employer who meets a candidate with excellent social skills might want to hire the person within the first few moments of meeting, before even reviewing the candidates credentials. On the other hand, even a candidate with excellent credentials might miss many opportunities if they lack social skills.

Perhaps the reason that it is so important to teach soft skills in the community college revolves around a class issue: students from educated, middle-class families often teach these to their children, and many four-year schools are populated with such students. This education may not be intentional: simply having a child surrounded by such environments is enough to teach many children how to behave well. Many of our faculty and employers come from institutions where this is the norm, and we therefore adopt the expectation that this is how people should behave. But if we recognize these character traits as a skill, then we recognize that this is something that is taught, and that many of our first-generation students from working class families were not often taught these skills. They don’t behave how we expect them to, and they are shut out of the education process because of this.

This week’s questions are these: What do you think of teaching soft skills? What do you do to teach or instill soft skills? Do you believe that the premise for teaching social skills is perhaps a false or problematic one?

3 thoughts on “Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Soft Skills

  1. Of course, I think it’s important that students develop (and that we as their teachers help them as much as possible to develop) qualities like determination, ability to work as part of a team, and other abilities that will help them interact with others in a professional environment as well as a civil one. I also agree with your point that these values are also related to class–and there’s a lot more conversation to have about that chunk of the issue.
    However, I think teaching “about” these skills is often conflated with teaching the skills themselves. As a student, I might be able to define what it is to be a good team member and yet still bail on my group for a class project. So when we are talking about teaching soft skills, do we really mean teaching students to apply and demonstrate these skills or just teaching students about what they are and why they’re important?
    That leads to the next question about whose authority matters in determining whether a student has met or not met one of these soft skills outcomes. I think it’s very important that we consider who is articulating the standards for each of these skills. This is one reason I have some concerns about the Youtopia badge program that was briefly outlined at State of the College. I will readily admit that my concerns may come primarily from a lack of detailed information. But who is in charge of determining whether a student has mastered a soft skill and therefore merits a badge or not? Is it earned based on knowledge about the soft skill or demonstration of mastery of the skill? Once a badge is earned, is it earned permanently or can it be revoked if behavior running counter to the soft skill outweighs the behavior that once earned the badge? Is one only required to demonstrate competence in that soft skill once, regardless of preceding or subsequent failures to demonstrate that competence?
    And maybe most importantly, who is supposed to look at these badges, and what are they supposed to understand about the student? If employers are supposed to see them (which I have other concerns about related to them taking our students and our school seriously), am I to assume that absence of a badge is the same as failure in that soft skill?

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