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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Soft is the New Hard 

April 23, 2014 — By Christopher Shearer

Forty is the new 30. Orange is the new black. Coffee is the new wine.

It seems that snowclones like these are everywhere nowadays. They pop up as unavoidable YouTube and Facebook memes. Indeed, in our Internet-driven lives, memes are the new clichés. One is tempted to come up with a “what is the new what” phrase for education reform. Okay, let’s be honest, you are probably not tempted to do so; but I am. So, here goes.

When our nation was entering the Industrial Age from its agrarian past, education needed to change pretty dramatically. Instead of just a few elites getting Reading , ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic, a growing workforce—a majority of Americans—now needed the literacy and numeracy required by an emerging, rapidly-changing industrial job market. Further, the assembly model of industry shaped the classroom itself: sit in rows, copy from a known body of knowledge, test for accuracy and repetition.

This method did a good job for a long time (especially if you could live with glossing over the fact that “a majority of Americans” meant male and white). Our economy boomed. The middle class thrived. The US ascended to economic leadership. And along with that momentum came a cliché all its own: teach kids the “hard” skills.

This back-to-basics mentality stresses the common sense notion that you only really learn by learning about something. You gotta memorize your multiplication tables. You can either spell or you can’t. You need to know a Shakespeare reference when you see one. These things matter to getting a job, getting ahead, and getting along. I agree, as far as it goes.

The problem is that it’s been clear for some time now that we’re moving from our industrial past to a new Information Age—and that education needs to change pretty dramatically all over again. Instead of just a few elites getting the skills to think critically and collaborate with others to innovate, a growing workforce—a new, multi-ethnic majority of Americans—now needs the “deeper learning” required by a rapidly-changing global job market. Researchers tell us that such learning comprises a mix of content knowledge, learning skills, and academic mindsets. Further, the knowledge-based model of the information economy should reshape classrooms: work in groups, leverage past knowledge to solve new problems, test for deep understanding and analysis.

This has also been made into a cliché: referred to somewhat condescendingly as the “soft skills.” But, increasingly these skills define who gets, and keeps, a job. Routine work—car assembly— is now done by robots. Even complex jobs based on knowable rules—tax preparation—are now automated and done by computers. On top of it all, the global economy can find talent anywhere—and does through outsourcing. These forces privilege an elite education that values full inclusion of soft skills. Yet, most kids today are being driven to memorize just the “hard” basics and spit them back out on multiple choice tests. This isn’t preparing them to get a college degree, to get a good job, and to enter the middle class as far too many recent news reports have been telling us. As one of the Foundation’s grantees, the Alliance for Excellent Education, points out in a persuasive report, in the new economy, both individuals and the nation as a whole are suffering when we don’t provide a quality education for all students.

So how do Americans get back on top? By acknowledging that—while, in fact, you do need the Three Rs—you now also need a robust set of skills that let you apply your knowledge to solve problems, to persist in the face of challenges, to reinvent your own job, and to learn how to learn across a lifetime. Add to this America’s get-up-and-go and you’ve got a winning formula for meeting the fast-paced challenges of the global economy and revitalizing citizenship here at home.

Turns out you need skills, man. Sometimes a cliché is a cliché for a reason.

Soft is the new hard.