Hard vs Soft Skills in Education… Finding the Balance

Hard vs Soft Skills in Education… Finding the Balance

The New Black Hat is Knowledge

Finding the balance between hard vs soft skills in education is so needed today!

In the 21st century, teaching and developing soft skills, like cooperation, emotional intelligence and team-working, has become all the rage…often at the sacrifice of hard skills.  A community member recently told me of an employee, a recent high school graduate, that he hired who thought we live on the Pacific Ocean (I live in New Hampshire!).

While it can be argued that he didn't need to know his basic geography to do his job, that same employer went on to tell me about the gaps this young person had in basic math and english…no,  this is not a person with English as a second language!

First, let me say this is not this young person's fault…This is a shortcoming on the part of the education he was given.

hard vs soft skills in education illustrated

Courtesy of BusinessPhrases.net

My grandfather grew up in some very challenging economic times.  His father passed away, and he left his schooling in the eighth grade to help support his mother and siblings.  His education was cut short.

Even so, he had the language and math skills to become a builder and became one of the preeminent designers and developers in his upstate New York community.

When this is not even the case for our young employee, the question has to be asked,

classroom balance of teaching and self-discovery

Are We Shortchanging Our Next Generation

in their Education Today?

What are they learning?

With the trendy emphasis on soft skills, presumably they know how to get along, how to communicate with one another, and how to collaborate.  These are important skills to have, for life and for work.

What is missing if there is a lack of balance between hard vs soft skills in education is having the knowledge base of what to talk about, and how to grow and develop.

This teetering lack of balance is worldwide, not just US-based, according to a paper I read recently from Dr Deborah M. Netolicky Le Penseur for the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development as OECD prepares for its 2018 PISA 2018 Global Competence assessment.  This assessment is being designed to address and recommend rebalancing (my words) for the best outcomes for children worldwide.

She seems to argue concern over more soft vs hard skills and ability being promulgated in continuation of the trend.

She does not discount the value of the soft skills…she advocates instead for preserving the acquisition of knowledge in addition to the soft skills now so in vogue in education.

She cites the need for

  • facts
  • formulas
  • concept
  • strategies
  • processes
  • terminology

She quoted Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel saying that of all the many meetings he as had over the years with the people who do the actual hiring of recent graduates, he has never heard, “ gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate”.

What he finds is that they can't find enough who know their stuff… who can do math and software engineering fluently without  using up time, pulling out calculators.

He said the need is for lots of knowledge in long-term memory

so that short-term memory can be used for creating, thinking and problem-solving

deciding what and how to teach is a balancing act for teachers tooBalance of Hard vs Soft Skills in Education is Not Easy

Balance can be very difficult to achieve…in life and in education.

How do teachers decide on a day-to-day basis what to put foremost when they are planning and teaching?  Teacher-led instruction or student-led exploration?

The research seems clear that the best outcomes for student knowledge gains comes from knowledgeable teachers who are experts at transferring that knowledge.  And, students also have to develop the skills to gain knowledge for themselves in order to become lifelong learners.  The balance of finding the balance in hard vs soft skills in education is a daily challenge for teaching.

There's also politics involved…people have their viewpoints and advocacy gets on a plane of defending that point of view, instead of being open to those of others sometimes…

WAIT, isn't listening openly one of the soft skills we want children to learn?

“The only way to make humans more capable in their thinking is to expand the store of things that they have to think with—in other words, to have more knowledge in long-term memory…”

Dylan William from new book

Creating the Schools Our Children Need

Mr. William draws an analogy in his book of the contrast of hard vs soft skills in education to those used by a PhD: the student draws upon an extensive store of knowledge gained in the discipline of study, and combines it with the thesis of original thought.creative thinking, critical thinking, communication and collaboration to produce the end result of the thesis.

The next generation in international standardized testing is being developed at least in part at the OECD PISA 2018 Global Competence assessment conference.  To inform the work being done, Harvard University's Graduate School of Education has a Ground Zero project going on.  You can read more about it here…

What parents can do- advocate, listen, check on homeworkWhat Parents & Grandparents Can Do to Help Their Kids Get Education

What can parents and grandparents do to make sure their kids get the best education, to prepare them with a proper base of knowledge and with the communication and collaboration skills they need for life, career and further education readiness?

I am a big advocate of both knowledge-based learning and for creativity in putting knowledge into action.  If you agree, then you, too, want a balance between hard vs soft skills in education for your kids.

What can you do?

  1. Acknowledge you're not the education professional (unless you are!)
  2. Ask lots of questions, and hold out for answers that make sense…talk to your local educators.
  3. Make sure your kids do their assignments and understand what they're doing
  4. Get involved in your schools at the local level…PTO's, PTA's, School Board
  5. Don't drink the Kool-Aid!

Trends in education come and go.  There is always a new flavour du jour.  Keep in mind that your children gaining knowledge with both soft and hard skills is the end goal of what you want.  Be their advocate, and be respectful of the educators who provide for them on a day to day basis…

What am I advocating here?  Oh, yes, balance!  And getting involved in solutions!


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Published by Annie Collyer

Annie is a mom of four, a business owner and blogger. She and her husband live in New Hampshire, where they are both active volunteers in their community school district. She writes about designing our lives with proven design thinking principles. Join her in creating the life we each want.

  • Craig Ostrander says:

    I think with the erosion of the nuclear family we are seeing a decline in some of the soft skill in our kids. Most of the soft skills like relationships, creativity, communication, decision making and such used to be buttered and developed in our family relationships and activities. Today many kids are being brought up in single parent homes, often with the mother working two jobs to provide food clothing for the family. With this lack of a traditional family and poor mom at her wits end at the end of a long day she does not have sufficient time to spend with her kids instilling some basic life skills. And without a father figure around much does more to exacurbate the problem.

    So, more and more what we are asking the schools to do is not only educate our kids but raise them as well. this puts more and more pressure on our teachers to try and be both an educator and a parent.

    I also think that besides the decline of the nuclear family that social media may also play a part in some of this soft skill decline. Kids go home from school and are bombarded with all the social media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, snapchat and on and on. A child can come home after school and spent the evening chatting it up with hundreds of so called “friends” but then you can put them in a situation around a room full of people and they are unable to communicate at all. It’s like being around someone in a social setting in person is something foreign to them.

    Anyway, I’m trying not to paint with a broad brush here and I know what I’m saying does not apply to everyone but is just something I have been noticing over the last decade or so.

    Thanks for the post Annie, it was very thought provoking.

    Craig (sorry for getting long winded)

    • Hi Craig,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful and concerned response.
      It is certainly true that the decline of the nuclear family, along with both parents working long hours, has raised expectations on the schools to fill a parenting gap.
      Social media electronics are shown by research to contribute to depression, a condition that is on the rise in kids and adults alike.
      It becomes a question of finding balance in education…should our teachers become social workers, or are they to teach? The peer interactive training helps to move the onus from them alone, and helps the kids learn more soft skills…it needs to be balanced with hard knowledge, too.
      Sometimes the expectations for kids to be successful learners does not come from the parents, and then it is either internal, peer-driven or teacher-driven, it seems…
      There are big challenges, and big questions.

      Thanks for taking the time to visit and share your thoughts!

      • It is a delicate balance indeed with, unfortunately, no black or white answers. Is tough on the kids and I’m sure added stress and responsibilities on already overworked teachers who have a multitude of expectations placed on them.

        • Hi Craig,

          I agree that educators have a big job…it is tough on kids when they are not given basic knowledge needed to succeed and the balance is too important to allow it to swing too far one way or the other. These are lives at stake!

          Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts!

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