A Drive Time Musing – Do Soft Skills Belong in the Common Core?

On my 40-minute drive into work I usually occupy my mind with one of three things. The default is an unproductive argument with someone who isn’t there about something that never happened (as Anne Lamott might put it). Best is a quiet step-by-step “pre-flection” on the day ahead. Somewhere in between is a musing on connections between things I really have heard, read, said, or done.

Recently, I’ve been musing about the upcoming Common Core assessments and my experiences in the last three years participating in Lesson2Life – a professional development offered by the Arizona K12 Center.

In Lesson2Life teachers spend three days visiting workplaces and talking to workers about their jobs. The aim is to better prepare us to create units that reflect realistic job activities and to be ready to answer the famous question: “When am I ever going to use this?” (I described some of my Lesson2life experiences in Teachers Need Vocational Ed., Too)

The employees who work in technical fields assert the need to be able to solve complicated multistep problems. The employees in fields requiring a university degree emphasize the need to read and write professionally.

But what is universal, from positions requiring no more than a high school degree to those requiring a Ph.D is the need for workers to be competent in the “soft” skills – like those listed in 7 Soft Skills You Need To Get Hired In 2013:
•    Listening
•    Adaptability
•    Teamwork
•    Judgment
•    Integrity and Ethics
•    Communication
•    Positive Demeanor

It troubles me that only content readiness is assessed by either the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College or Careers (PARCC) or their competitors, Smarter Balanced, not personal or interpersonal readiness.

Yet, who is better prepared for college or a career: The candidate who can solve a really hard math problem, or the candidate with integrity and a positive demeanor who listens, adapts, collaborates, and can also solve a really hard math problem?

I’m a member of Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Teacher Advisory Group. At our first meeting I brought up this exact point. Superintendent Huppenthal responded positively, relating about how kids he knew had collaborated on a project by using Google docs and other productivity tools – just like they would be expected to know how to do in the 21st Century world of work.

But another member of the group said that a lot of the questions in the Common Core assessments require problem-solving and analysis, which are also considered soft skills.

A different member said collaboration couldn’t really be assessed in a standardized test.

In my drive time musings I’ve taken issue with both these colleagues. If problem-solving and analysis are soft skills, then they’re cerebral soft skills – as opposed to personal and interpersonal soft skills – the kind I referred to.

And who says you can’t assess them? Here’s an example of how it’s done. In Lesson2Life, I’ve toured Tucson Electric and Power and learned about a problem-solving task they give to job candidates. The trick is there aren’t enough resources for everyone and some tension builds.The Human Resources people aren’t looking for who will complete the task, but who will reach out to others and share the limited materials.

Assessing soft skills in school would require a whole new look at what assessment means and looks like. But it’s already happening elsewhere. A Google search for Test for Soft Skills returned plenty of online tests and tutorials. There was even a report about how Graduate Management Admissions Council has introduced Reflect, a commercial product which tests students’ soft skills (but not for admission).

While you’re driving to work here are some questions I challenge you to grapple with:

  • Can organizations that claim to assess career readiness fairly ignore personal and interpersonal skills?
  • Can you quantitatively measure soft skills?
  • Where would they fit in the Common Core?

What challenges do you have for my drive time?



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  • ReneeMoore

    Hard vs. Soft

    I wonder about this terminology we’ve adopted labeling different types of skills and learning as “soft,”  So what are the others, “hard” as in “hard data”? Are they “soft” skills because they can’t be quantitatively measured? Or are they “soft” because they are skills traditionally associated with feminine nature? Listening, teamwork, communication…these are all things that must be learned, so clearly they are able to be taught (either directly or by example, or both).  Perhaps changing the terms will help us think about the skills and how to nurture (oops, is that a soft skill too) them more fruitfully? 

    • SandyMerz

      Hard v. Soft

      Right.  And hard science and soft science.  So I Googled, “Why do they call them Soft Skills?”  (And yes I know, but don’t know why, you’re not supposed to ask The Google questions).

      The first three links are excellent – if you only have time for one, I’d recommend the second:

      In “Why Do They Call Them Soft Skills?”  Celia Young compares them to software and other skills to hardware because the soft skills are less concrete and easy to measure – you can see a mouse, where’s the code?

      In “Don’t Call Them Soft Skills” Richard Knappen says that the soft skills are more important than any degree and what employers look at when they look deeply. (It’s a super article.)

      Robert Half writes in “Soft Skills: Why There Not So Soft Any More” that soft skills used to be considered an add on to a candidate’s resume,  but now they’re essential.  He even suggests we should find a new term and bury “soft.”  But he doesn’t offer a replacement.  

      Thanks for your comment.

  • PaulBarnwell

    A lack of interpersonal skills hinders student learning.


    Great reflection.  It’s a lot easier to collect data on measurable “hard-skills” and content-knowledge, as defined by high-stakes test.  Your post is a great reminder that whatever standards we’re teaching, we’re dealing with people–there’s a lot more to becoming educated than knowing how to solve equations and write essays.

    I see so many students at school struggle academically due to a lack of interpersonal skills.  Minor conflicts blow up, disengaging learners.  Others struggle discussing ideas face-to-face.  Yet others don’t know what to do when placed in a group problem-solving setting (we have to teach them, of course).

    • SandyMerz

      Face to face is huge

      Eye contact doesn’t come natural to me, but I’ve learned how effective it is.  I’ve also learned how important is to show your face to people with whom you’re having a conflict with. It can be completely disarming.  Last year I had a couple of parents who didn’t like their daughter’s performance in Algebra.  Whenever I saw them on campus, I’d make a point of going right up to them and greeting them and giving them a report. In the end I didn’t end up doing anything they demanded and they never followed through on their threats to write all the distict officials. (My principal had my back 100%).

      How much more successful could our students be if they would just learn that?


  • JustinMinkel

    Yes, we can.

    Sandy, I muse about this exact topic more and more frequently in the past few years. I think part of it is that teaching the many straightforward academic skills can be daunting and engrossing in itself, and it took me awhile to be solid enough with those “basics” to pay more attention to skills like ingenuity and perseverance. 

    The other blog I write, through Education Week Teacher, is focused on these “21st Century/Non-cognitive/Soft skills,” and my first post for that blog gives my current thinking on the questions you pose: Teaching for Triumph

    In brief, I think that

    1. We can measure them. Maybe not to the decimal point, but there are plenty of models like National Board certification that get at skills too complex to simplify to bubbles by using rubrics. I’d rather have an approximate measure of something that really matters than a precise measure of something that doesn’t.

    2. We can teach them. Examples abound.

    3. As you point out eloquently in your highlighted quote, it’s not an “either-or” and these skills have a direct impact on the conventional academic skills. Richard Roberts at ETS presented research that makes a compelling case for this: teachers who took some time to teach non-cognitive skills were found to have greater students achievement in “the basics” than teachers who used all their time to teach those basics. The study is referenced in my 2nd post for that blog: True Grit

    You have a great mind, my friend. I’d love to co-author a “conversation” blog post with your sometime the way Gayle Collins and David Brooks do in the New York Times.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Curriculum Stuffing


    I would LOVE to read a conversational blog between you and Justin…so think about it 😉

    I’ve had your post up for 3 days on my browser to remind myself to come back and comment. My first read through had me pondering…and pondering…as all great writing does. 

    In my own teaching, I’ve only this year begun to understand the difference between “group work” (two or more students working together on a singular task) and true collaboration: two more more students working together, each bringing a specific skill and each playing a unique role for shared ownership in the overall task. I’ve begun to structure my activities differently and reflect on the results in my student’s ability to work together, take equal ownership, and feel assessed fairly. 

    This has been great learning for me, and I believe my studetns as well, yet, I don’t explicitly assess the skill of collaboration. Instead, I set expectations that encourage or force students to collaborate and be held accountable for their role in the final product’s quality and assess them for specific criteria predicated on them working with someone else. So my grades assess those common core skills, but my overall assessment requires colleaboration to demonstrate those skills. One way to get around the need for direct assessment. 

    I do think, however, that direct instruction of these skills is crucial. As Justin mentioned, modeling is important–students need to see and understand what collaboration, appropriate audience behavior, strong conversational skills LOOK and SOUND like in order to practice and replicate them. 

    The problem I find with this is pacing. As Common Core skills are higher-order and authentic assessments require many complex sets of skills, I feel like I always run out of time. If I slow down a project or unit to explicitly teach some of the “soft skills” (and I LOVE the ideas Renee has about the renaming of these–I’ve always hated that “soft” moniker) and also scaffold the content skills, my project becomes a monster! 

    I’m sure there are so many possible solutions to my problem, but I wanted to bring it up to offer this argument to the discussion: maybe these skills are not taught and assessed because for far too long our curriculum has been a mile wide and an inch deep. The standards focus has often forced an unreasonable pace to cover content–often sacrificing the athentic assessment, inquiry learning, and yes, explicit teaching of intraperonal other untested skills. 

    • SandyMerz

      Focus on process, not measurement

      In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver writes how focusing on the process can improrove results more that focusing on the results. Your post makes me wonder if we took time to focus on “soft” skils, maybe the assessed skills would improve.

      • Amethyst Hinton Sainz


        The way we become educated is all a complex system of interrelated intelligences, isn’t it?  Which is why using only standardized tests and tightly departmentalized schools at centerpieces of our educational system in the U.S. is perhaps a slippery slope, one we are pretty far down…

  • ReneeMoore

    Hard vs. Soft

    I wonder about this terminology we’ve adopted labeling different types of skills and learning as “soft,”  So what are the others, “hard” as in “hard data”? Are they “soft” skills because they can’t be quantitatively measured? Or are they “soft” because they are skills traditionally associated with feminine nature? Listening, teamwork, communication…these are all things that must be learned, so clearly they are able to be taught (either directly or by example, or both).  Perhaps changing the terms will help us think about the skills and how to nurture (oops, is that a soft skill too) them more fruitfully? 

  • ReneeMoore

    Others Are Discussing This Too

    I am a guest blogger for the National Journal.com at its Education Experts forum. We’re given a topic to respond to each week, and guess what this week’s question was about?

    Here is the response I sent to them: 

    I just had this same discussion with one of my teacherpreneur colleagues in the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory.  In that discussion I made this observation: [Here I quote my reply to Sandy above].

                The terminology matters because how we think of these skills explains why we don’t do a better job of teaching them, especially to poor and disadvantaged students. If we view these critical skills as something extra or esoteric, we could easily believe that we are helping the students who are already far behind their peers by not distracting them with that type of learning; choosing instead to focus on drilling them on the tested skills.  Kylene Beers, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote a heart-wrenching indictment of where this faulty (and insidiously racist) line of thinking leads.

                Communication and critical thinking skills can and should be embedded into our teaching of the so-called basic skills for all students. Showing students how the core academic skills are actually used in the professional and civic settings they will encounter is a powerful motivator and teaching tool.   

  • SandyMerz

    What a piece

    Kylene Beers piece is just super.  Thanks for recommending it.  

    • ReneeMoore

      Link to National Journal discussion

      That piece by Beers is powerful; I recommend it often as an antidote to those suffering from the “culture of poverty” myth. 

      Here’s the link to the discussion of soft skills at National Journal.com Education Experts. Note: that is mostly read by folks inside the DC Beltway.