On Google and Soft Skills and Things We Already do Well

21st century skills. Individual learning. STEM. These are just a few of the buzz words flitting around students heads as they prepare for their lives beyond high school.

The push for STEM has been strong and consistent for years now (8-10 depending on who you ask). STEM has been prescribed as necessary for students to survive in a world we cannot imagine and for jobs that do not exist. The truth is that education has always been possibly training students for jobs that do not exist in an unimaginable world. The details have changed, but the general progression of society and culture has not. How could it?

Two recent research projects at Google “Project Oxygen,” and “Project Aristotle,” have studied the behemoth company intensely (not a surprise from Google) and discovered the following are the traits of their most successful employees:

Conclusions from “Project Oxygen” (2013) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Conclusions from “Project Aristotle” (2017) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As an English teacher it is hard for me to find these conclusions surprising. Both of these lists echo reasons to read literature of all sorts and across all time periods, and reasons to write analytically and reflectively. Reasons supported by scientists and personal experience alike. These conclusions are also solid support for the argument for a liberal arts education (I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s great book).

The Washington Post article focus on what Google’s conclusions mean for students, and as a teacher I cannot help thinking about what they mean for education as a whole.  I understand the desire to glom onto STEM as a focus for students, because the outcomes for STEM are, more often than not, tangible and measurable. Plus, STEM is really important. The outcomes for humanities classes often encompass (even when they zero in on tangible activities or skills) the above decidedly intangible set of soft skills. How do we measure a student’s capacity to “possess insights into others?” Or even measure critical thinking? These are inherently messy proposals.

My district and most of our surrounding districts have begun a process of embracing the ambiguity of this situation. We are learning about “Deep Learning.” Explaining deep learning is as convoluted and problematic as fostering generosity in a student. These are huge, abstract, human concepts. The question I keep finding at the forefront of my mind is this one: what differentiates “deeper learning” (or insert your own professional development term of choice here) from what we used to call “best practices?”

It increasingly seems to me that we have all the tools we need. Bloom’s taxonomy, questioning strategies, concept based learning, the teaching-learning cycle of assess, teach, experiment, assess, etc. I know the terms for these concepts and strategies varies, but the application does not. The application is as old as the allusion in Google’s research project: Aristotle. Or older even. I really do think education is more about how individual teachers connect and get individual students “there” (there being that “deeper,” epiphany-laden place…or Plato’s allegory for education: the cave—my other theory is that our job is just to keep leading students out of cave after cave after cave and to learn to see right alongside them as we move forward).

I don’t think there is a panacea. What if professional development took a deep breath and just let teachers do what they know how to do? What if pro-d just started pointing out things teachers are doing well? What if pro-d (and those that oversee it and evaluate teachers) practiced being good coaches, listening well, making sure teachers felt safe, supported, and heard? If we practiced this at the pro-d level nationally, state-wide, district by district, school by school, what would be the effect? Would it trickle down into the classroom and into the student’s lives?

My great concern is that studies like Google’s lead to a rash of “teaching empathy” lessons, where well-meaning educators explicitly teach soft skills. In my experience this is like explicitly teaching grammar. When I teach grammar in isolation, students become better grammarians, but not better writers. When I teach grammar in the context of the reading students engage with (no one better to teach complex sentences than David Foster Wallace), or in the context of their own writing, they become better writers. If we teach empathy in isolation of sympathetic characters, situations, or engaging details students might become better clinical psychologists (?) but not necessarily better practitioners of empathy in their daily or work lives. They need to experience it in realistic conditions.

I will put forth here that most teachers do this well already. I mean, those Google employees in the study are products of our school systems.  I believe teachers can focus on two primary things: 1) make students feel safe, 2) challenge them with rich content.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed offers a good list of the conditions ideal for learning: awareness of the subject matter, interest, motivation, relevance, engagement, reinforcement, and support. All seven of these are created naturally in a safe environment with rich content. I don’t intend to sound reductive, as this simple focus is extremely difficult. What could be more important?

2 thoughts on “On Google and Soft Skills and Things We Already do Well

  1. Mark

    This: “My great concern is that studies like Google’s lead to a rash of ‘teaching empathy’ lessons, where well-meaning educators explicitly teach soft skills. In my experience this is like explicitly teaching grammar. When I teach grammar in isolation, students become better grammarians, but not better writers.”

    It’s this year’s “growth mindset.” A complex, valuable premise whose core thesis is appealing, but which is put into practice in often superficial ways. It is interesting to see how even Carol Dweck has expressed dismay and concern about how her “growth mindset” work has been reduced to worksheets and sound bytes.

    As a fellow English teacher, I agree with everything you’ve pointed out above… the human skills of listening, discerning, wondering, extending empathy… these are missing if we only focus on measurable outcomes. A STEM focus is fantastic. BUT, all the greatests in STEM fields are also often well-read in great literature and well-studied in the ways of humanity.

  2. Robyn Jordan

    I couldn’t agree more with the two-part focus you suggest!

    Also, to your point about professional development needing to mirror the building of soft skills with students – I’ve found that the more emotionally safe I feel with colleagues, the more I sincerely set goals for myself, and grow.


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