30 Tips to Cultivate Soft Skills in Your Students

Post by Open Colleges on May 1st, 2015

Preparing students for successful careers is a major part of every educator’s job, but most preservice and professional development programmes don’t cover the skills employers are currently seeking–things like “emergent” leadership, adaptability, humility, and ownership.

At Google, hiring managers don’t care whether a candidate received perfect grades, served as president of the chess club, or even finished university. What they do care about–and what a rapidly increasing number of organisations care about–is soft skills like the ones mentioned above.

“Too many colleges don’t deliver on what they promise,” says Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, in an interview with the New York Times. “You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

We need to be giving students more than a sum of knowledge reflected by a piece of paper. We need to be giving them the tools they need to be resourceful in a socially perceptive way, to innovate not just alone in a lab but with a group of colleagues, and to adapt when new requirements arise.

Which Soft Skills Do Students Need Today?

At Google, there are five main soft skills hiring managers look for. The number-one skill, Bock says, is learning ability.

“It’s not IQ,” he explains. “It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second emergent leadership, as opposed to traditional leadership. “Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care.” What we they do care about is how–when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team–do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, how do you step back and stop leading, so that someone else can? “What’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

Other desirable soft skills include humility and ownership. It’s a sense of responsibility for solving a problem and the intellectual humility to be willing to learn from others.

“Without humility, you are unable to learn,” Bock says. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

Instead, he says, they commit the “fundamental attribution error,” which means you attribute positive results to your own genius and negative results to someone else’s shortcomings.

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

On the flip side, there are skills that no longer matter as much, like expertise.

“If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills…[but] no content knowledge…once in a while they will mess it up, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.”

Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn/Ferry International, posted a blog response to the New York Times piece a few months later. The post discusses “how to get a job anywhere” (not just Google), and echoes many of the same sentiments shared by Bock:

“Is creative brain power more valuable than formal education?” he asks. “To the extent that grades reflect certain expertise in the skills today’s organisations and companies require, some test scores are still valid…However, I believe that for any job that is even vaguely technical, in all fields–business, health, government, education, entertainment–that will also mean new scores on ‘new knowledge and skills,’ including inventive thinking, digital literacy, fluency in digital participation, digital communication, coding and making digital stuff.”

Burnison also highlights the ability to ask big questions, see connections, draw parallels and distinctions, think originally and follow leads, and do it objectively, creatively and collaboratively.

“The reason this is absolutely essential to Google, and to all organisations that are shaping the new economy,” he says, “is that innovation and learning to learn new-stuff-on-the-fly are key to their success, and innovation demands perceiving what was not there before and doing whatever you can to learn it.”

It also demands collaboration.

“Innovation rarely happens in instantaneous individual breakthroughs, but rather evolves through collaborative group endeavors in which personal adaptability is a necessity. This absolutely requires humility, for successful innovation can only be driven by learning, imagination, and by data, never by ego.”

It’s extremely important, then, for teachers to create learning environments where students get to brainstorm, thinking imaginatively, and research big questions on a regular basis, in the company of others.

“Of course, innovation (at all levels of expertise) also has a high failure rate, so in addition to humility, you need a relentless belief that you can get stuff to work, that you can build something with your ideas (that they do not remain ideas), and you need to take ownership of that belief so it becomes self-motivating.”

Who’s Paving the Way?

Many educational institutions are beginning to implement their own soft skill curricula.

At Monash University, for instance, engineering students are expected to acquire not only technical knowledge and hard skills, but soft skills as well. A new programme called GROW encourages each student to “grow and develop as an individual” and therefore become a better engineer.

“Industry constantly tells us that today’s graduates need better soft skills related to self-awareness, emotional intelligence, teamwork, leadership, innovation and communication, among others,” says Professor Gary Codner, Associate Dean of Projects. “[GROW] is an exciting opportunity for engineering students to develop and gain valuable insight and skills that are transferable to any workplace situation. Basically, it will place our students ahead of the pack.”

The trend extends to younger students as well. In Providence, Rhode Island, elementary students are part of a program called “Mind in the Making,” which teaches them the “seven life skills every child needs to be successful.” Those skills include focus and self-control, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and communicating. Providence educators say this approach targets how a student learns rather than what he learns. It looks at the social and emotional behaviors necessary for early learning: the ability to sit quietly, to pay attention, to share, to express empathy.

“This grows out of the latest brain research,” says Leslie Gell, director of Ready to Learn Providence, an early-learning initiative that is part of The Providence Plan. “It shows that the early years are very important.” According to Gell, these soft skills provide the foundation for the acquisition of academic skills. “You can’t learn unless you can focus.”

Tertiary institutions in Singapore are paying attention, too, with universities upgrading their curriculum in response to market needs. The Singapore Management University (SMU) has tweaked its Finishing Touch Programme to become a series of workshops for students. Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore (NUS) introduced new modules in 2012, and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) established its Margaret Lien Centre for Professional Success last year.

Sim Cher Young, director of the Kho Hui Meng Career Centre at SMU, says the university has been working closely with employers with regards to soft skills: “We have been very close with our employers in terms of having them feedback to us, when we share with them: ‘this is the content, this is how we want to deliver the programme.’

“Finishing Touch has been at SMU since our inception, but of late, I have been taking bearing from the employers because they will tell me: ‘I suggest SMU needs to spend more time on looking at the students’ self-awareness or the student’s attention to unwritten protocol,’ or even things such as ethics and governance that the student needs to be really aware of before he or she enters the workplace.”

Dominic Salomoni, associate director at Robert Walters, added, “There will always be good candidates and there will always be average candidates. The best candidates are generally those with the better soft skills and more likely to be successful in terms of getting through the interview process and then potentially through the careers, just because they have really important traits that one needs to grow their career.”

Leaders at institutions like these recognise that soft skills are not only essential to a student’s educational and career success, but also accessible to students of all ages and backgrounds.

“The attributes we need to cultivate in youth these days so they can grow into getting a job at Google, or any job in the coming economy,” Burnison says, “are attributes that in no way belong exclusively to the elite and can be achieved by everyone, if we give them engaging opportunities, starting young.”

It’s by no means any easy path to widespread soft skills acquisition, but it’s one we can follow.

One issue, says National Board Certified Teacher Sandy Merz, is that soft skills don’t lend themselves to direct instruction: “Picture yourself writing this objective: ‘When working on group projects, students will correctly demonstrate empathy on 75% of the opportunities that arise.’ How in the world could you ever measure that?” Fortunately, Merz assures us, soft skills can be organically embedded into your day-to-day contact with students. With that, here are a few suggestions we’ve curated from around the Web:

30 Tips to Teach Soft Skills

  1. Give students authentic choices about how they’re going to learn and be assessed.
  2. Provide a learning environment where trust, initiative, and taking risks are encouraged.
  3. Hold all students to the same high standards.
  4. Model perseverance by not giving up on students.
  5. Support students by helping them find their own way.
  6. Demonstrate alternate paths to content mastery.
  7. Teach to the whole person (not just the “student”).
  8. Treat your students as mature individuals, even when they aren’t following instructions.
  9. Talk about tailoring communication styles for different audiences.
  10. 1Build students’ interpersonal skills through an environment of humility and respect.
  11. Help students practise taking on different roles in different situations.
  12. Differentiate opportunities for personal growth and opportunities for team growth.
  13. Cultivate a sense of responsibility through meaningful and unique contribution.
  14. Assign group exercises that give people the opportunity to speak, listen, write, organise, and lead.
  15. Assess learning through interactive evaluations that demand real-world demonstrations of learning.
  16. Challenge students’ reactions to new obstacles and situations.
  17. Emphasise that the same solution doesn’t necessarily work every time, even in the same situation.
  18. Incorporate exercises in delayed gratification in order to build persistence and grit.
  19. Start grading students on how well they listen to their peers.
  20. Discuss the importance of social-emotional intelligence in the real world.
  21. Design opportunities for students to build and demonstrate resilience.
  22. Make learning a personal experience, highlighting the way education shapes personality.
  23. Create opportunities for students to innovate, both on their own and in groups.
  24. Draw attention to the differences between online and in-person social etiquette.
  25. Reward students who are willing to admit they’re wrong.
  26. Recognise students who are committed to communicating ideas to others.
  27. Hold brainstorm sessions in which students list the possible uses for various soft skills.
  28. Help build motivation through principles of self-reliance (read: Emerson, Thoreau).
  29. Keep an open ear and encourage students to develop new thoughts and ideas they may have.
  30. Develop learning ability through greater awareness of individual learning processes.
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