Soft vs Hard Skills

Access to information has never been easier. Basically, you are a click away to learn something what really interests you. You can go on and on, and there will still be new things popping up about the subject you are interested in. The point is, nowadays, you can learn everything everywhere, definitely where there is internet access, and if you are motivated enough to gain knowledge.

Getting deeper into the matter, probably will contribute to your professional development and make you extremely skilled in your field. Being skilled would imply that you have developed a set of skills that allow you to perform concrete work-related tasks well. Yet, what kind of skills are they? Are they soft? Are they hard?

Somehow the degree of ‘skill firmness’ plays a crucial role while climbing your career ladder. Which ones prevails most probably would depend on what you prefer to focus most. But would your preference really help you succeed? If, for example, you think that you should develop the ‘tangible’ skills, the ones you could measure and which would show your progress in numbers, are you sure you will be able to offer creative solutions to problems related to your field? What would be the difference between you and the software being able to process an enormous amount of information much faster? Are you sure you will be able to compete with the software, if you have devoted your time exclusively developing your hard skills?

From my experience, it often happens that students who have very good knowledge of the English language, i.e. have their hard skills well-developed, sometimes fail to effectively communicate in that language. The point is that while spending so much time on remembering and understanding, they tend to overlook the importance of developing soft skills. And although they know a lot, they seem to struggle to transfer that knowledge to real-life situations.

After having been asked to fill in some speech bubbles at home with the most suitable conversation structure, I decided to check their homework by testing their ability to use those patterns in small interactions. The activity was rather a failure. Then, when I decided to go on with the lesson and try to find a solution to the problem, one of the students asked me: ‘Aren’t we going to check our homework?’.

I was quite taken aback. First, they did not understand that the previous activity was checking how well they had assimilated what had been assigned to be done at home. Second, it turned out that they all filled in the speech bubbles with the most suitable pattern for the given situation. To my question, ‘What’s the purpose of filling in the speech bubbles correctly if you can’t apply this knowledge to real-life contexts?’ the students could not give me an answer. So the problem was that they had their lower thinking skills well-developed, yet their higher order thinking skills were rather poorly developed.

Another surprising incident happened when I asked students to work in pairs. I wanted to involve all of them, and I often like to mix more proficient students with less proficient students. I do believe that both have a lot to learn through collaboration. The very fact of interacting and trying to solve some problems together already contributes to the development of their soft skills. However, students showed little enthusiasm in engaging in such activities at first. Somehow, in their system there’s this totally erroneously built-up theory that you’re going to be appreciated exclusively by how much you know/learn/memorize.

This belief has been rooted in students’ minds and it is quite challenging (yet not impossible) to make them see the danger of such an approach to learning. And this is a problem which does not concern only learners of a foreign language. Teachers, nowadays, should focus on developing both hard and soft skills. Moreover, at tertiary level soft skills development should be prioritized. Teachers should boost the students’ ability to interact effectively, to work productively in a team, to think creatively, and to transfer knowledge to real-life situations to solve problems.

It is good to keep in mind that we all are just a click away from learning something new. The question is how skilled are we to both effectively and creatively use that knowledge to solve problems?

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