Don’t Try to “Teach” Soft Skills

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not-teachingEfforts to teach soft skills frequently lead to teacher frustration and disappointment. This is not because these critical aptitudes can’t be developed, but because the “teaching” approach used often mimics teaching content knowledge.

Soft skills – or as I prefer to call them, Life/Career abilities are the behaviors, mindsets and character traits that contribute to students’ life readiness. Life/Career abilities is a positive label to identify this important domain of student learning. Regardless, of what you call this domain, it is an integral part of learning along with acquiring knowledge and developing skills. Educators must emphasize Life/Career abilities, but embrace a different mindset and not attempt to “teach” these in a traditional sense.

This is because a traditional approach implies that “teaching” is simply imparting new knowledge with expectations that students will retain and recall that knowledge – Present-Practice-Test. This simplistic model may work well when teaching basic vocabulary or other forms of rote learning. However, as learning becomes more complex, experienced teachers understand that more enhanced teaching strategies are required, including developing the context for students, providing applications of knowledge, and using engaging approaches such as inquiry and discovery. While there is some knowledge that is essential to the domain of Life/Career abilities, this domain is primarily focused on behaviors, for which even an enhanced teaching approach will not necessarily result in desired student behavior.

A model for describing and practicing the teaching mindset required for developing Life/Career abilities is that of the parent. Any experienced teacher, who has also been a parent, (or, uncle, aunt, grandparent or other caregiver) recognizes the overlap in skills between effective parenting and quality teaching. This is particularly important when focusing on the behaviors of Life/Career abilities. A better term to apply to this type of instructional mindset is perhaps nurturing: just as a parent nurtures a child’s development, teachers need to nurture the development of Life/Career abilities.

There are five elements that are critical to nurturing; relationships, expectations, providing experiences, modeling and feedback. Any attempt to influence behavior is deeply influenced by human emotions and frequent, positive interaction builds relationships essential for nurturing behaviors. Another essential beginning element is establishing expectations. Using such “presets” – i.e. having students think about a behavior before being in the situation to exhibit that behavior – greatly influences a student’s decision-making and therefore his or her response. A parent also nurtures developing behaviors by providing experiences and opportunities for children to practice those behaviors. Providing richer experiences can take many forms, such as creating play dates with other children, enrolling children in arts or sports activities, traveling as a family, or even assigning appropriate work chores around the home. Throughout our own development, we regularly – consciously or unconsciously – imitate some of the behaviors that we observe in others. Consequently an essential way for teachers (or parents) to nurture Life/Career abilities is to model the expected behaviors. The final element of nurturing is providing feedback, not in the form of a grade, but as constructive and consistent reminders when learners’ behaviors do not meet expectations.

Soft skills can be taught, but not in the traditional or stereotypical sense of teaching facts. Begin to use a nurturer mindset to evoke the parenting role in developing a child’s behavior. Using such an approach better defines teaching practices to develop students’ soft skills or Life/Career abilities.

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