Soft Skills Development

Educational institutions worldwide have accepted that they should prepare their students for a complex and uncertain society and labour market. While they appear to have accepted their new vocational role, there is considerable confusion over how these things – generic competencies, soft skills, attributes or capabilities – should be defined and implemented.

Autonomous vs. intermixed teaching

There are two schools of thought concerning the teaching and development of ‘soft skills’ (Moore, 2004): the ‘generalists’ and the ‘specifists’.

Generalists believe that soft skills can be taught separately from content and applied to any discipline.

Specificists argue that attributes, such as the ability to think critically, cannot be separated from their disciplinary context. Knowledge is seen as fundamentally situated.

Relativists sit in the middle of the generalist and specifist positions and argue that a generic attribute such as critical thinking needs to be learned contextually, but once learned, can be transferred to another context.

There are two possible approaches to integrating key competencies, language, literacy and numeracy into units of competency and training programs:

The integrated approach intermixes the key competencies explicitly with vocational competencies in all aspects of training. This holistic approach to the development of technical and generic skills has been supported because it is thought to be closer to the real experience in the workplace.

Separate generic skills units, such as communication and teamwork, may be used as foundation units. For the existing adult workers, who have specific learning needs, teaching these generic skills, separately from the technical skills may also be needed. For unemployed, in prevocational education, or still in initial education, a standalone soft skills course may be the only way to acquire these competences.

Teaching practices concerning the development of soft skills in students of initial and VET education and novice workers, entering the labour market.

VET/University Students

a) Learning Theories
  • Experiential Education Theory :people are inspired to learn by an experience of their own or perhaps by observing someone else’s experience
  • Social Cognitive Theory : The information gathered from the experience, or observation of other people’s experience, only becomes a learning experience once there is an opportunity to reflect on it, relate it to some theoretical concepts and apply it.
b) Students’ different learning styles (Kolb, 1984)
  • abstract concept: start with the theory and apply it in own life
  • concrete experience: start with an activity
  • reflective observation: it only becomes clear through a discussion with others or reviewing it themselves
  • active experimentation: it is clarified when one is engaged in active experimentation.
c) Conditions for effective learning

Provision of a large variety of experiences and learning strategies (Dawe ,2002):

In general

  • Promote their importance
  • Develop mechanisms for communicating the scope of generic skills
  • Use authentic experiences
  • Use team-based and integrated approaches to foster generic skills

In training organisations use learning strategies such as:

  • workplace projects
  • community projects
  • mini-companies or practice firms
  • use of critical incidents to focus discussion and problem solving
  • investigation or enquiry-based learning
  • problem solving learning
  • project learning
  • reflective learning and workplace practice

Training should have two characteristics: fidelity and complexity (Shuman et. al., 2005)

  • Fidelity is defined as the similarity of the training situation to the students’ present and future working conditions. The higher the fidelity, the more superior the transfer of learning to the workplace.
  • Complexity is defined by two sub factors: task interdependence and cognitive effort. The more complex the activity, the more team skills are required by the participant.
d) Workplace simulation practices

Practice firms

  • Workshops
  • Experiential learning
  • Role play
a) Workplace as a learning environment

The learning process during on-site training calls for a form of tutoring that embraces features including coaching and mentoring.

  1. integrating well planned and coherent experiences with skills to be developed;
  2. promoting reflection over experience;
  3. facilitating the integration of experience through self-assessment, the analysis of consequences, and the promotion of transference to other situations.
b) Good practices NCVER (2003):
  • Make generic skills a key feature in job descriptions and recruitment process.
  • Help familiarise staff so that they learn what the organisation expects in terms of key employability skills and standards of work.
  • Model the behaviours sought.
  • Use buddy or mentoring approaches, or working alongside another employee.
  • Use rotation of tasks or working at higher duties where relevant.
  • Use relevant targeted training for workplace supervisors.
  • Use staff or teams to role play or discuss particular procedures or issues, such as dealing with difficult customers within workplace requirements.
  • Use quality circles and improvement teams to examine processes and other issues in the company or work unit.
  • Use work-based projects to assist the development of employability skills.
  • Use staff assessment and the performance management system to reflect on these skills.
  • Use critical incidents, including dealing with mistakes, conflict resolution or performance problems.
  • Involve staff in appropriate community projects.
c) Learning strategies to develop generic and soft skills in employees(Dawe, 2002)

A variety of One-to-one or small group training include:

  • Communication
  • Planning daily work
  • Industry knowledge
  • Health and safety for work
  • Personal work ethics—courtesy and enthusiasm
  • Personal skills—housekeeping duties

Using means like:

  • Learning guides or activities sheets
  • Mentoring or coaching
  • Recording difficulties and successes
  • Learning teams
  • Formal training sessions
  • Discussion groups or meetings
  • Self-directed learning activities
  • Visits to other sites or organisations by individuals or teams

Initial Education Students

Teaching and learning in schools have strong social, emotional, and academic components. Emotions can facilitate or impede children’s academic engagement, work ethic, commitment, and ultimate school success.

Definition and Goals of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Elias et al. (1997) defined SEL as the process of acquiring core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively.
The proximal goals of SEL programs are to foster the development of five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective, and behavioural competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

CASEL, the leading international organisation for promoting SEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has defined (CASEL, n.d.):

The Key Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Competencies

  • Awareness of Self and Others (Awareness of feelings, Management of feelings, Constructive sense of self, Perspective taking).
  • Positive Attitudes and Values ( Personal responsibility, Respect for others, Social responsibility).
  • Responsible Decision Making ( Problem identification, Social norm analysis, Adaptive goal setting, Problem solving).
  • Social Interaction Skills ( Active listening, Expressive communication, Cooperation, Negotiation, Refusal, Help seeking).

Features of successful programmes

  • Programme Design (Clarity of rationale, Promotion of effective teaching strategies, Infusion across subject areas, Quality of lesson plans, Utility of implementation monitoring tools).
  • Programme Coordination (School-wide coordination, School-family partnership, School-community partnership).
  • Educator Preparation and Support (Teacher training, Technical support).
  • Programme Evaluation (Quality of evaluation providing evidence of positive effects on SEL-related student outcomes ).

SEL programmes are likely to be effective if they use a sequenced step-by-step training approach, use active forms of learning, focus sufficient time on skill development, and have explicit learning goals and these practices are combined with one another. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges. New research suggests that SEL programmes may affect central executive cognitive functions, such as inhibitory control, planning, and set shifting that are the result of building greater cognitive affect regulation in prefrontal areas of the cortex.



  • CASEL. (n.d.). Safe and sound: An educational leader’s guide to evidence-based SEL programs (Illinois Edition) | CASEL. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from
  • Dawe, S. (2002). Focussing on generic skills in training packages. Leabrook S. Aust.: NCVER.
  • Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., & Weissberg, R. P. (1997). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (First Printing.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Deve.
  • Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning : experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  • Moore, T. (2004). The Critical Thinking Debate: How General Are General Thinking Skills? Higher Education Research and Development, 23(1), 3-18.
  • NCVER. (2003). Fostering generic skills inVET programs and workplaces, At a glance. Adelaide: Australian National Training Authority.
  • Shuman, L. J., Besterfield-sacre, M., & Mcgourty, J. (2005). The ABET “Professional Skills” — Can They Be Taught? Can they Be Assessed. JOURNAL OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION, 94, 41–55.
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