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So, what exactly are soft skills?

USC experts have developed some parameters.

Both educators and the employers regularly now say that learning “soft skills” is critical – and, in fact, perhaps more important than acquiring more traditional material.

However, it is hard to develop these more subtle talents because they are hard to teach and measure and even difficult to identify precisely.

But a team at the University of Southern California has some solutions – a set of specific skills and an approach to teaching them that they developed after six years of research about the need for these qualities.

“There is a lot of confusion today about the meaning and applicability of soft skills,” says Ernest Wilson, founding director of the USC Center for Third Space Thinking and former dean of USC’s Annenberg School. “Yet at the same time, industries across the economic landscape are aggressively seeking such skills, even if the definitions are squishy.”

The center, which got its name because it is investigating a third way of looking at what we think is important in education, has developed these skills that it hopes will be broadly adopted in education and among employers:

Adaptability. Demonstrates mental agility and remains comfortable with ambiguous, unstructured environments and flexible in the face of continual change. Willingness to adjust one’s thinking and approach in response to new, unexpected or changing conditions and information.

Cultural competency. Demonstrates emotional and cross-cultural intelligence; capable of working inclusively, respectfully and effectively across cultures or organizations that have different values, norms, customs, and language or terminology. Also demonstrates broad, cross-functional thinking, shunning the limitations of structural, geographic, departmental, or other organizational boundaries.

Empathy. Capable of understanding and recognizing others’ needs, goals, feelings, priorities and perspectives by engaging in active listening and focusing on reflective responses that clarify and strengthen dialogue. Able to effectively interpret others’ viewpoints and integrate these insights into more effective approaches for problem-solving and need fulfillment.

Intellectual Curiosity. Possesses a hunger for new knowledge, information, and understanding that fuels ever-higher levels of learning and performance. Engages in novel opportunities and experiences, strives for measurable growth and demonstrates emotional intelligence and savvy.

360-degree thinking. Takes a holistic, multi-dimensional, analytical approach to problem-solving. Able to convert information into insights, infer implications from data and extrapolate from data to real-world applications and engage in sense-making by “connecting the dots.”

Wilson says the parameters it has set have been broadly adopted by internationally by several major universities and corporations and a number of school districts.

“We have identified the main challenges and misconceptions in this field -- that soft skills are not well defined, are hard to measure, difficult to teach, and hard to apply consistently. By interviewing hundreds of professionals around the world across diverse industries, we have put some hard edges on these soft skills,” Wilson says.

Once these skills are identified, educators sometime struggle with how they should be taught, and Wilson and other experts say active learning, where students “engage with the material, participate in the class and collaborate with each other” is most effective.

“We see better attention and better learning outcomes when we introduce various exercises that engage the full student,” he notes. This includes group work and role playing, as well as one-on-one ‘silent interviews’ to guess the soft skill capabilities of one’s partner. We also find that jumping straight to learning new interactive and group skills is better done by first building up intra-active competencies to enhance the self-awareness.”

Other experts agree that having students work on projects in or out of class is probably the best way to have them learn and practice soft skills, which are sometimes connected to social emotional learning.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), has developed fundamental goals for SEL which experts note are similar but slightly different than “soft skills”. They say, however, that often they can be encouraged in students with similar initiatives and a focus on active listening.

CASEL’s core competencies are

  • Self-awareness: Know your strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”
  • Self-management: Effectively manage stress, control impulses, and motivate yourself to set and achieve goals.
  • Social awareness: Understand the perspectives of others and empathize with them, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Relationship skills: Communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.
  • Responsible decision-making: Make constructive choices about personal behavior and  social interactions based on ethical standards, safety, and social norms.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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