The Prince’s Trust recently surveyed teachers, parents and pupils to ask them about the place of soft skills in education. Their Results for Life report (see here) was published in September, and found that:
- 43% of young people don’t feel prepared to enter the workforce, with 43% of those who feel this way believing their soft skills are not good enough
- More than a quarter of teachers (27%) think that their students don’t yet have all the soft skills required to do well after school
- 72% of workers felt they didn’t have all the soft skills to do well in their role when they started working
These findings are nothing new. For years we’ve seen reports telling us how employers value soft skills over technical knowledge in graduates and how soft skills are the main deficit in new graduates’ capabilities.
So what are soft skills and why are they so important?
Hard skills are the teachable abilities that we measure in schools such as reading, writing and mathematics. By contrast, soft skills are harder to quantify and tend to be self-developed. Examples are communication, teamwork, time management, resilience and problem solving. The Results For Life report concludes that such skills are considered to be as important to achieving success in life as good grades, by young people, teachers and workers alike. Whilst hard skills are indispensable, it is soft skills that help candidates stand out from the crowd and succeed in both the workplace and in life. Some employers claim to value them even more than professional experience. These soft skills often carry greater weight when applying for positions of leadership; I’m sure we can all think of a person in a position of leadership who has achieved this more for their exceptional soft skills than their technical abilities.
What can schools do to develop soft skills?
In his foreword to the ‘I CAN’ ‘Skills for Work, Skills for Life’ report (see here) Bob Reitemeier wrote that
‘despite recent attention from business and education sectors recognising the role soft skills play in work-readiness, the skills gap continues – with young people being overlooked because they lack this core skill set’.
With an education system focused on quantifiable academic success it’s no surprise that soft skills are pushed aside. Young people in the UK are under great pressure to succeed in exams, and spend an increasing amount of time working independently, often with a fear of criticism and failure. As a result, development of soft skills like team working and spoken communication can take a back seat; yet such associated qualities such as humility and self-confidence can improve the overall academic performance that we care so much about. It’s clearly time for schools to integrate the development of soft skills into the curriculum. One way of doing this is through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
Boosting soft skills through STEM Education
STEM-related careers are one of the fastest growing areas of employment and STEM graduates are in a position to earn some of the highest starting salaries. Soft skills are increasingly required in these industries, in particular communication, teamwork, self-organisation and critical thinking. Done well, STEM activities can also be a way of developing soft skills.
Take a recent primary school STEM project. The year six children arrived at school to a crime scene: their school trophy had been stolen and the culprit had left a trail of destruction in their wake. Over the course of the week, the children collaborated together to solve the crime, classifying fingerprints, predicting the height of the criminal from their footprints, using paper chromatography to analyse written evidence and building up a profile of the criminal. They were visited by a policeman and a forensic scientist, found out about their roles in solving crimes, and ended the week by interviewing the suspects and successfully identifying the culprit.
The example above uses an interdisciplinary, project-based learning approach to teaching, based on solving real-world problems. It ticks a lot of boxes in terms of developing the soft skills our young people need. As with many STEM activities, it also involves a certain level of trial and error. However, these setbacks also teach important soft skills, helping children to develop the resilience and perseverance needed in life. One criticism from employees against our education system is that graduates are not adept at problem-solving, expecting to be told what to do rather than figuring it out themselves. STEM education is one way to combat this. When participating in STEM projects, children must learn to work in a team, listen to each other and communicate their ideas to others.
Young people recognise they need better soft skills, employers expect them, and teachers want to deliver them: better STEM education has been on the agenda for a long time, and by focusing on a real-world, problem-based approach, we can get enhanced soft skills into the bargain too.