The emphasis on soft skills makes sense, of course. We all value them in our children, in those we work with, in ourselves. But let us acknowledge at the outset that soft skills do not play out in a social-economic vacuum. Showing up on time or managing one’s time, for example, can be affected by unreliable transportation, untreated medical problems, family emergencies, or pure and simple exhaustion.
There are further limitations with the way we think about soft skills. One is the very separation of hard and soft skills themselves, as though they are neatly distinct and fixed. But, they are, in fact, intimately connected. You can’t very well manage your time, monitor your own performance, or help others if you know little about the field in question. As part of the research I did to write Back to School, I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding. While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively acquired competence, soft skills developed apace. Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.
Furthermore, soft skills are affected by the setting we’re in. I stay focused and persevere when writing something like this blog, but my diligence, not to mention my literacy skills, collapse with tax forms. I witnessed a striking example of the powerful effect of context a while back when I was visiting a high school carpentry program. On the bus over to a Habitat for Humanity construction site, a young man was as obnoxious as could be, mouthing off and insulting other students; several times the instructor who was driving the bus had to tell him to cool it. But the minute he walked onto the job site, his behavior and demeanor changed profoundly. His arrogance and nasty streak disappeared. He was focused on the tasks in front of him, politely raising questions to the instructor, and considerate of the students working with him. The demands of work he cared about brought out the best in him.
An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity. If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do. That work has to have some kind of meaning to those involved. And it has to provide enough security for them to get to work on time.
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