Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer – Towards a universal understanding of soft skills?

It’s so important: employers recognise it; educators recognise it; parents recognise it. Yet it is shrouded in jargon and cliché. We have so many overlapping words for ‘it’: employability skills; soft skills; wider skills for learning; non-cognitive skills; performance virtues. Yet we don’t really have a language that we can use to converse in a meaningful way where understanding is truly shared.

While few would deny the vital nature of ‘soft skills’ (a loaded term if ever there was one) to employment, the phrase itself – when translated to the classroom – tends to be associated with ‘fluffy’ teaching; seen as the poor cousin of academic knowledge. The teaching of ‘it’ brings less esteem than the teaching of subjects. Maybe it is seen as the agenda of those ‘progressive educators’ who, rumour has it, want to remove subject knowledge from the curriculum and instead replace it with well-being and all things pupil-led.

This said, the last six months in politics has begun to lead to a re-think in some attitudes towards what is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’ in learning. In a positive commentary on this movement of opinion, Fiona Millar in the Guardian notes Sir Anthony Seldon’s suggestion that we make a virtue out of ‘happiness’. This suggestion stems from serious issues like “unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among pupils” and, of course, the impacts such concerns have on the capabilities of those same pupils once they head out into the wider world.

Various organisations promote ‘character education’ as part of the solution; an increasingly popular move to develop ethical, engaged citizens (The Character Education Partnership) democratic citizenship and civil society (The Center for Character and Citizenship) or human flourishing (The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues). But what is it that character education teaches?

For Richard Sennett, ‘character’ is clear. It is outward looking; not inward, like personality, “which concerns desires and sentiments which may fester within, witnessed by no one else”. Character, in the ‘old-school’ sense is

“the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others”. It “concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others”.

It cannot, therefore, be instrumental. We don’t have character just to achieve some goal; we have character to be valued for having character.

By unfortunate irony, the very reason that our young people need character more than ever is to succeed in a modern world that has eroded society’s ability to instil character into individuals through the natural progression of their lives. Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character is a remarkably insightful observation into this situation in which he states:

How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about character posed by the new, flexible capitalism. (p. 10)

To circumvent this issue, there is a growing trend to separate out character into ‘performance’ and ‘moral’. Sometimes the ‘moral’ is removed, lest it be seen to make value judgments of the religious kind, although studies across cultures reveal the universality of core ethical values (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). And also perhaps because, as Sennett observes: “the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character” in the true sense of the word.

Thus, it is performance character – and there is a growing consensus on this – that is of particular interest to politicians, employers, and education researchers.

But just as non-cognitive and cognitive skills are hard to prize apart, judgement is required to sift through ‘performance’ and ‘moral’ personal characteristics. Integrity is an example. The following quote is attributed to businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, perhaps the 20th century’s most successful inventor:

I look for three qualities in hiring people. Integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first then the last two will kill you, because if they don’t have integrity you want them dumb and lazy. 

Surely, if any characteristic would fit the label ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’, and yet also be of great significance for performance in the world of work, then integrity is it. It could be argued that it both “enables us to be our best ethical selves in relationships and in our roles as citizens” and also “to achieve… our highest potential in any performance context” to use the Character Education Partnership’s respective descriptions of ‘moral’ and ‘performance’ character.

In Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and integrity in business (1992), Robert Soloman argues that capitalism as an institution cannot ultimately tolerate a model of business that ignores the traditional virtues of responsibility, community, and integrity. CEO Amy Rees Anderson gives entrepreneurs pause for thought with her statement that “success will come and go, but integrity is forever” in an article of the same title. Amy similarly champions ‘respect’ as a value absolutely critical for success and, again, would we call this a moral virtue, or a performance virtue?

The Character Education Partnership published a position paper laying out its view of education that recognises the importance of performance character (needed for best work) as well as moral character (needed for ethical behaviour) stating that:

While core ethical values remain foundational in a life of character, character education must also develop students’ performance values such as effort, diligence, and perseverance in order to promote academic learning, foster an ethic of excellence, and develop the skills needed to act upon ethical values.

The position paper acknowledges that the two elements are ‘aspects’ rather than distinct ‘parts’ of character. And because they form a conceptual framework they are, by nature, open to interpretation.

So what terminology should we use when debating the non-cognitive skills for employment? Is ‘values’ helpful? Character ‘virtues’ may be a useful phrase, for example, while ‘trait’ is perhaps too ‘fixed’ a characteristic. ‘Employability skills’ has a certain ring to it, although may easily be used to describe things that are not the things we are talking about.

Do we even need a shared language? The Confederation of British Industry, a big player in this debate would say Yes. Arguing that the new national curriculum’s focus on promoting spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils is not enough, their end of year report proposed that

We need a clear statement of outcomes which incorporates the behaviours and attitudes that the school system should develop in young people. We also need an accountability framework and inspection regime which incentivises schools to deliver these agreed outcomes. (p. 3)

The CBI uses language like ‘determined’, ‘optimistic’, and ’emotionally intelligent’ to describe the young people it wants our education system to cultivate. Are these universally desirable, or do different categories of user identify different non-cognitive skills? For example, could it be argued that private, public, and ‘third’ sector hold broadly different values, such that a common core of ‘skills’ does not exist? In Wider Skills for Learning Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argued that the plethora of approaches to wider skills are frequently ‘wish lists’, betraying the underlying aspirations of their authors. Not only this; they are generally incoherent such that they would not stand up to psychometric scrutiny.

Needless to say, there is a whole array of classifications for soft-skills with complementary and overlapping labels. While we might concede that different groups of users may have varying rationale for using different labels, or for having different lists within those same labels, it is true that we can’t compare, or measure, if we don’t even try to find common ground.

In the realm of social science, are there any certainties? Well, soft skills are said to predict success (and to be in part responsible for it) later in life (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). Most notably, ‘conscientiousness’, which is tendency to be persevering and hardworking, stands out as the most predictive of the Big Five across many outcomes. These Five are a taxonomy of personality traits relatively well-accepted by psychologists: emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness.

As a trait, conscientiousness encompasses a number of factors: grit and self-control included. These two are the focus of Angela Duckworth, eminent psychologist, whose work examines these two traits that predict achievement. But the Education Endowment Foundation reportThe Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People’ concludes that although these both correlate strongly with outcomes, they may be more alike to stable personality traits than to malleable skills.

Ultimately, that report finds that there is no single non-cognitive skill that predicts long-term outcomes. Rather key skills are inter-related and need to be developed in combination with one another. Here, we return full circle to character. As Richard Sennett wrote:

Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. (p. 10)

When mere creation of wish lists of desirable qualities leaves much to be desired perhaps it is, ultimately, character that we need. Or ‘excellence’; the approach Ron Berger takes to developing learners’ inner compass for success.

Lucas and Claxton end Wider Skills for Learning with the recommendation that

we are convinced that real progress in developing ways of cultivating the wider skills of learning and creativity will be hampered unless we insist on speaking and thinking in terms of dispositions and habits of mind, rather than merely of skills. (p. 31)

We, as a society must work out what dispositions, or ‘habits’, we value. And, maybe more importantly, work out why we value them. After all, is the term ‘performance virtue’ not rather a cynical one if we aim to develop it for instrumental means (how it can benefit me) rather than for its own sake (how I can benefit others)?  What we need are ‘employability habits’ that take character as their starting point.

The Centre for Real-World Learning’s research into character and employability for the City & Guilds Alliance – Learning to be employable – will be published later this year.

Additional references:

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and classification New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press