Thom Markham

San Rafael, CA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 6 Years ago
  • 3.5k

Why Soft Skills are Hard Skills

Teaching 21st century skills is now regarded as a top priority in education, but in my experience it is still unexamined territory. In fact, I question whether these skills can be taught without radical adjustments in teaching methods and—most of all—a deeper appreciation of what it takes for students to master skills instead of accumulating knowledge.


Our fuzzy outlook on skills begins with the outdated vocabulary of industrial education, in which writing an essay or solving a math problem is traditionally regarded as a ‘hard’ skill, while communicating with someone who disagrees with you or collaborating effectively in a diverse team are considered ‘soft’ skills.


This is more than a vocabulary issue. It confirms the hierarchy that gives greater weight to academic achievement and stigmatizes the teaching of skills. It also ignores a fact obvious to most adults: Communication and collaboration are the most difficult of human skills—and need to be taught and practiced relentlessly.


Fortunately, we are in the process of rebalancing outcomes in education to be more skill-based. The new Common Core Standards will hasten this—the focus on inquiry demands better skills—but at the same time I believe we should be prepared for an unintended consequence: We will discover that teaching 21st century skills is more difficult than we assumed. Here’s why, in rough order:


1. The need for qualitative assessment. The first reason is obvious: Skills don’t fit into our current assessment system. Skills can only be assessed through performance rubrics, which can be quite good (and are getting better), but which are imperfect instruments that are inherently subjective, based on observation, and loosely tied to letter grades. Eventually, a widely-accepted set of anchored, standardized rubrics will fill this gap. But assessing skills cannot meet industrial standards of measurement.


2. Integrating skills and instruction. I’ve been part of teaching 21st century skills for the past ten years, primarily by building a teaching model that closely integrates project based learning (PBL) with skill-based instruction, and I’ve come to believe that we can’t teach 21st century skills without PBL. In general, well designed projects accomplish that important goal. Students emerge with clearly enhanced abilities to collaborate in teams, present to audiences, and manage their workflow.


But I’ve also noticed the projects that fail. In those instances, the teams resemble the group work from the 90’s, with a kind of mixed off-task focus that gets just a bit of work done, but not too much. Or, the presentations are mundane, with no more rigor than the Friday oral book report. In other words, PBL can be very good at helping students master 21st century skills, but not so good at teaching core knowledge and the conventions of a discipline. It’s vital that we develop higher standards for inquiry-based, skill-oriented instruction that accomplishes both goals. This will be a major challenge for professional development around Common Core Standards.


3. Levels of ‘hardness.’ Now the terrain shifts. It is one thing to train students and assess them on a group presentation. That is not difficult for many teachers. Similarly, a teacher can observe how well a group works together and assign a grade for their performance. But the functioning of a team of student depends on a number of positive internal factors—psychologists call them ‘strengths---that determine how much empathy, persistence, and personal responsibility a member brings to the team. Anyone who has worked in a team knows that personality counts—and we don’t know how to teach personality. This point is underscored if you read the many new lists of 21st century skills, most of which include resiliency, tolerance, and appreciation for global diversity as skills.


4. Purpose. Increasingly, I see a systemic issue ahead of us as we attempt to upgrade education and fit it into the global culture: We can’t teach 21st century skills without purposeful engagement. This point relates to the above comments on ‘hardness.’ Skills emerge from deep within, spurred by challenge, freedom, and meaning. In the last few years, there has been a flurry of books describing the effects of purpose, including The Path to Purpose, by William Damon, and Drive, by Daniel Pink. These and other books attest to research showing that purpose drives performance, and that purpose derives from meaningful engagement with topics that matter.


Eventually, that means that teaching 21st century skills must be fundamentally linked to educational transformation. So far, we treat skills as cognitive add-ons that can be taught in the same way that the photosynthesis cycle or the causes of the Civil War are taught. But the core issue is that skills can’t be standardized, and that truth will send ripples through the system.


Thom Markham, Ph.D., is a psychologist and school redesign consultant who assists teachers in designing high quality, rigorous projects that incorporate 21st century skills and the principles of youth development. His latest book is the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K-12 Educators. He may be reached at


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