What are ‘soft’ skills and why do students need them more than ever?

In a recent workshop with Tania Lattanzio, she shared this video. As you watch it, consider its accompanying question: will our children be prepared? The world continues to evolve at an alarming pace. Education must keep up and reflect society otherwise we’re preparing children for a world that no longer exists.

It’s important to point out that these game-changing innovations are being developed today. This is not a sci-fi, distant future. It’s not even a future that belongs solely to our students. We’ll all see it unfold over the next few years and, put simply:

“The general public is about to get blindsided.”

Do You Trust This Computer?

A major 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute (across forty-six countries) suggests that up to 800 million jobs will be automated by 2030. The same findings state that 20% of current UK jobs will be displaced in the same time period. In the world’s richest countries where automation is affordable, it states that one-third of workers will need to retrain. It isn’t all bad news though, as many experts predict that robots will create more jobs than they take. Still, change is upon us.

In a recent interview, Jack Ma emphasised the need for education to urgently move beyond knowledge-based schooling. As Ma states, our students will not be able to compete with machines. Anything that machines will do better than humans needs to be reconsidered. In what ways can we compete with machines? I’m reminded of this quote from George Couros:

“As the world becomes more “digital”, it is crucial that we become more “human”.”

George Couros

What is it, then, that makes us human? What separates us from machines? As technology starts to outperform us on our hard skills, we must focus on the soft.

While hard skills refer to technical and trained dispositions, soft skills relate to personality, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. In short, they are about character and ‘people skills’. They are transferable and important across all industries. To give just a few examples, soft skills include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Resilience
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Integrity
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Conflict resolution
  • Self-motivation

The McKinsey Global Institute supports this shift towards soft skills. According to their report, jobs that require human interactions will be safer (at least for now). Soft skills are more “human” and harder to replicate artificially.

Education must keep up and reflect society otherwise we're preparing children for a world that no longer exists. Click To Tweet

What are the implications for education? The PYP places importance on soft skills through the Essential Elements, the attributes of the Learner Profile and the overall aim of developing international mindedness. As PYP teachers, we have to ensure that we are treating these elements with the status that they deserve and actively working towards student progression in these areas. I am more concerned about traditional education systems that continue to place too much emphasis on facts. While knowledge is still important (it’s one of the PYP Essential Elements), it’s also cheap. It holds less power than it once did. I also worry that soft skills will continue to take a backseat just because they are harder to test, measure and quantify (but that’s a different blog post for another time).

Regardless of where you teach or what curriculum you follow, here are a few suggestions for promoting and developing the soft skills in your students:

  • Consider the integration of soft skills during lesson design
  • Encourage students to reflect on their soft skills
  • Implement STEAM disciplines and maker-centred learning
  • Allow time for passion projects with an emphasis on transferable skills
  • Use facts as a foundation on which to build conceptual understanding
  • Offer (and value) a broad and balanced curriculum
  • Develop the ‘whole child’
  • Value the process of learning as well as the outcomes
  • Continually model the soft skills that you want your students to demonstrate

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. What else do you suggest? How can we develop our students’ most “human” traits and abilities? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section below and let’s keep the discussion going.

At this point, you might be questioning the job security of educators. I do not believe that teachers will be replaced. It’s an extremely “human” profession that relies on relationships, interactions, empathy and heart. However, I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Wagner:

“This does not mean technology has not changd the role of the teacher. It has – and dramatically.”

Mark Wagner, More Now

We don’t know what the future will be like but we do know that it will be unlike the present. To conclude, I’d like to bring your attention back to this question: will our children be prepared?

If not, we failed them.

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  1. Very informative post. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights. EdTech can be a way of cultivating the humanity of students. Learning with tech tools spans diversity and distance, allowing learners to interact with other learners regardless of proximity. Consider that learning with tech tools is immersive, allowing learners to be mindful, and this, in turn encourages mindfulness that brings about holistic growth.

  2. Fabulous and challenging post, Adam. The video is a total WOW! I am pleased to hear that robots will create more jobs than they will replace though, and definitely agree with you on the importance of ‘soft’ skills. I also agree with your thought that traditional education doesn’t do these well and all over the world there is too much emphasis on content, on what is measurable and can be tested. Most of the soft skills defy measurement but are what will make the difference for one to cope with changing times.

    1. Hi Norah,

      Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts and feedback. I totally agree with your comments. I am really concerned that content will continue to be valued over soft skills just because it is measurable and, through testing, is an easy way to keep teachers accountable. We should be accountable, but for what? Does our accountability match our aims? Food for thought…

      Thanks again,


  3. Hi Adam,
    What an amazing video! And how much has the world of AI evolved!
    Completely agree with the ‘soft skills’ theory. There is now an ever growing need to ensure we nuture and develop these skills within our own classroom. We now need resources and lessons developed around these fundamental ‘skills’.
    Here’s to teachers creating & sharing such a resource and the development of, in essence, a new curriculum.
    Thanks as always for such an informative and thought provoking read.

    1. Hi Vicky,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. These skills and attitudes are often referred to as the “hidden curriculum”. We just need to bring it to the forefront by valuing Circle Time, PSHE, etc. Many fantastic resources are already available. Regardless of the curriculum content (the ‘what’), we can develop students’ soft skills through its delivery and lesson design (the ‘how’). In the PYP, we have a set of skills that are referred to as the “Approaches to Learning”. I quite like this name because it suggests that we can develop these regardless of what learning is being “approached”. As long as teachers recognise the importance of soft skills and are committed to developing them, they can find a way regardless of the curriculum.



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