Do we really need to teach soft or life skills?

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There's an increasing amount of talk about the need to introduce soft skills or life skills into schools, and possibly with good reason. But what exactly do soft skills cover? A quick search of Wikipedia describes soft skills as:

A combination of interpersonal people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes and emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) among others that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.

Perhaps a more simple definition might be, that soft skills are the skills that are desired by employers, outside of specific job or task knowledge. In other words, you can technically be an accountant if you have the right education and technical knowledge, but to be a great accountant, you'll likely need to get on well with people, have good communication and social skills, empathise with others, manage your time effectively and so on. This is perhaps why soft skills are often referred to as life skills – because a successful life requires mastery of these types of skills.

Specific examples of soft skills include:

  • Communication skills

  • Critical and structured thinking

  • Problem solving skills

  • Creativity

  • Teamwork capability

  • Self-management

  • Time management

  • Conflict management

  • Cultural awareness

  • Responsibility

  • Courtesy

  • Self-esteem

  • Sociability

  • Integrity / Honesty

  • Empathy

  • Work ethic

Interestingly, soft skills – or non-cognitive skills as we prefer to refer to them – have been shown to be at least as important for educational and labor market success as cognitive skills like numeracy or literacy.

Can a soft skills education help students achieve success?

In their 2012 paper titled, Hard Evidence on Soft Skills, James Heckman and Tim Kautz outlined the following conclusion:


The larger message of this paper is that soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.


So it would appear that soft skills education can indeed help students achieve success. This is perhaps somewhat obvious when you consider some of the examples of soft skills outlined above. Students who learn to master self-management and develop personal responsibility plus a strong work ethic, are well placed for future success in any domain. Couple this with improved problem solving skills, creativity, empathy and sociability, and it's easy to see why soft skills might lead to positive life outcomes. But this is not to say that soft or non-cognitive skills should replace the more typically taught cognitive skills. As IPEN's 2016 The State of Positive Education Report outlines:

The multiple components of positive education (engagement, relationships, purpose, etc.) must not be treated as independent of each other, but mutually reinforcing to influence the development of a “whole person”—a dynamic system of cognitive, emotional, motivational, and personality processes (Blair & Diamond , 2008; Kaufman, 2013; Kaufman & Duckworth, 2015; Molenaar & Campbell, 2009)."

Soft Skills / Life Skills and Passion Arena

As already outlined, many of the non-cognitive skills included in Passion Arena's program would meet the definition of a soft or life skill. We choose to promote non-cognitive skills, as this also allows us to stretch our skills outside of simply soft skills and includes other valuable skills for success such as leadership, deliberate or perfect practice, or building courage. Passion Arena's content is designed to help schools introduce these valuable non-cognitive skills, as a means to supplement the existing cognitive skills training that schools provide. We see this as an ideal approach to encouraging the best possible 'development of a whole person'.

Watch a Passion Arena episode relating to soft / life skills

Due to the close relationship between non-cognitive skills and soft skills, we feature a number of episodes that cover soft skills or life skills related content. To get an idea of how we introduce our non-cognitive skills, click the button below to watch a Passion Arena episode about empathy.

Want to find out more about soft skills?

Books on soft skills:

If you'd like to dive further into understanding soft skills, we recommend the following books which introduce some of the non-cognitive or 'life' skills covered in the definition above. Click on the titles for more information.

Videos on soft skills:

Here are two videos that introduce the benefits of soft skills. Note, the goal of project based learning as outlined in Paula Golden's talk, is based on the use of soft skills—the 4 (or 5) C's.


Andy Wible – Strengthening Soft Skills (13min)

Paula Golden – What Skills Lead to Success. (22min)


Academic papers on soft skills:

The academic papers below are only a few relating to soft skills or life skills. While we hope the studies below prove useful, if you have a specific area of positive education you want to address, we recommend searching Google Scholar

Hard Evidence on Soft Skills
Authors: James J. Heckman and Tim Kautz. First Published: August 2012

The Importance of Soft Skills: Education beyond academic knowledge
Author: Bernd Schulz. First Published: June 2008