Building the soft skills for success

It is hard to succeed in life without skills in reading and math, but they are not the only ones that count or the only ones children learn in school. Education is a broader enterprise, as a recent survey by the Pew Research Center demonstrates. Pew asked a national sample of adults to pick select skills from a list of ten, which “are most important for children to get ahead in the world today.”  

Reading and math are considered important by most, which is no surprise. But “soft” skills such as communication and teamwork were also chosen by many:


Many of these skills will be developed outside of formal educational environments. As Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, shows, however, there appear to be widening class gaps in participation in extra-curricular and community-based activities, those which in his words, build “strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement.” He urges action to narrow these extra-curricular gaps. But they also mean that learning soft skills in the classroom increases in importance.

Schools for Soft Skills

Our analysis of data on classroom activities from the 2010 Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (CNLSY) shows gaps in exposure to classroom activities related to building these important “soft” skills, particularly for low-income students.

The CNLSY asks students about how often their most recent language arts teacher used specific teaching techniques, such as assigning presentations, group projects, or quizzes and tests. Our analysis focuses on two questions related to tasks that build communications skills, and one related to tasks that build team work.

Classroom Communication

Giving presentations is one way to develop the communication skills ranked as number 1 by respondents to the Pew survey. But across all income groups, over one-third of students reported never/rarely having to give a presentation:


Many fewer students (less than 10 percent) report never or rarely being given written assignments. But there is an income gap here. Students in the bottom income quintile are over twice as likely to report never having writing assignments as those at the top:


Teamwork in the classroom

Teamwork is a skill that falls even more firmly in the “soft” or non-cognitive skills bucket. Low-income students are much less likely to report working on projects in small groups, a key way to learn how to collaborate and build critical thinking skills.  Students in the bottom income quintile are almost twice as likely as those in the top quintile to report that they never or rarely work in small groups:


Mind the gap in soft skill development

These descriptive statistics capture only a small slice of the academic lives of one cohort of students (i.e., classroom teaching practices in one subject). They may reflect the need for different teaching approaches for students working at different levels. But they also offer a glimpse into possible holes in curricula and serve as a reminder of the need to encourage teaching practices that build not only reading or math skills, but non-cognitive skills as well.