The hard and soft skills in children’s school life

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
Charles Dickens, Hard Times

When learners exit the school system at Grade 12, there are hard and soft skills, also known as cognitive and affective skills, that they are expected to have acquired to prepare them for life beyond basic education. This might be in tertiary education institutions, training and development colleges or in the world of work. So how do these hard and soft skills get developed over an early lifetime?

To begin with, let us define what is meant by hard skills and soft skills in the context of the learning and development of children. Hard skills are largely cognitive in nature and cover the academic knowledge of subjects and the accompanying learning skills necessary to learn (e.g. study skills, note taking skills). Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to personal skills that enable an individual child to interact harmoniously with themselves and other people. Put differently, soft skills are about individual learners’ intrapersonal and interpersonal relations.

In order to create well-rounded learners with the ability to do well academically whilst at the same time living in harmony, it is critical for the education system to focus on both the cognitive and affective skills of children. You can have learners who do well academically but are not able to relate well with others. Similarly, learners who do not do well academically, regardless of how socially “polished” they might be, will not get very far in terms of realising their full potential. Ideal citizens possess both sets of skills. For example, they will have 21st Century soft skills like networking skills, competent communication, multilingualism, emotional intelligence and a global outlook. But at the same time, they will have no shortage of hard skills such as digital literacy, entrepreneurship and creative problem-solving.

When thinking about hard and soft skills, a few key points come to mind. First, hard skills are the first to be deliberately facilitated by parents, caregivers and teachers in children’s educational development and they largely form the foundation upon which soft skills are subsequently built. Without hard skills, the development of soft skills is severely hampered. Just think of how difficult it would be for a child who is unable to understand language to relate to family members and other children in the classroom.

Second, hard skills are easy to measure through observable, objective and identifiable indicators but the same cannot be said of soft skills. You can tell quite clearly if a child has optimum body and brain development, is acquiring the language of communication, has the necessary gross and fine motor skills, is able to read, write and count, etc. With soft skills, you have to use more subjective assessment. This often requires someone who understands the social and cultural milieu of a child to be able to tell how they are doing.  There is an alliance of global education leaders comprising 12 countries, including  South Africa, known as the Global Education Leaders’ Partnership (GELP). One of its key aims – similar to lots of activity around the globe – is to develop a framework to effectively measure these “21st century” soft skills in education. GELP’s framework is intended to serve as a guide to develop country specific performance matrices based on the contextual realities of each country concerned.

Third, hard skills tend to be mainly taught in formal settings like the classroom, but the same is not strictly true when it comes to soft skills. While the classroom has an important role to play in nurturing soft skills, their development is influenced by larger social interactions that children have outside of the classroom. Formal and informal education, hard skills and soft skills, happen cheek-by-jowl and should never be artificially separated. Education, in its broadest and holistic sense, is an unbroken thread that happens organically. Education should not be reduced to the confines of the Charles Dickens’ teacher who insists on teaching children ‘nothing but Facts’ presumably because they assume that the cognitive matters more than the affective.

Finally, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has a strong bias towards the development of children’s hard skills as opposed to soft skills in schools. Considering the poor showing of South African learners in scholastic performance when measured against the country’s own assessment regime as well as regional and international benchmarks, it is important for DBE to reconsider its almost exclusive focus on academic achievement. While the poor academic performance of learners is definitely a result of poor-quality teaching and the low socio-economic status of the majority of learners, ignoring the development of soft skills in children seriously undermines their academic learning and development potential. Hard and soft skills mutually reinforce one another in children’s learning and development.

Tshikululu support for activities that focus on both the hard and the soft skills is reflected in how we work with our partners in three critical areas. First, when implementing partners approach Tshikululu for financial support in specific areas of children’s learning and development, they are often asked to demonstrate how they ensure an integrated focus on both hard and soft skills. Second, Tshikululu deliberately encourages organisations offering bursary support in tertiary institutions to provide recipient students with soft skills support, often referred to as psychosocial skills. Over the years, Tshikululu has witnessed the positive impact that the provision of psychosocial support makes to students’ success rates in tertiary institutions. Lastly, Tshikululu works with partners that support young people to help them transition into the world of work. The experience of implementing partners that operate in this terrain has shown that young people with strong critical thinking skills, communication skills, team work, emotional intelligence and good interpersonal relations tend to have an edge over their counterparts who only boast the hard skills. By emphasising the importance of soft skills during basic education, and ensuring this focus remains as young people move closer to the world of work, Tshikululu aims to contribute to improved education in the country and, ultimately, a more efficient and effective economy.