I don’t think “social skills” was even a term when I was in school. I mean, of course we understood it intuitively—some kids were well-liked, funny and empathetic. I knew from early on that some people had a knack for making me feel listened to and important, and that made me feel good, and that those people had some kind of skill. A shy nerd then and now, I have to fight terror at even basic social interactions. And talking with a terrified person tends to make people nervous, not relaxed and happy.
But now “emotional intelligence” is a common term. Not only do we want our kids to learn the three Rs, plus all the relevant STEM skills, we want them to be socially adroit too. In fact, researchers consistently predict that social skills will be the skills workers in the future will need. The New York Times recently ran a story titled, “Why What You Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work,” a rather convincing argument that the jobs of the future will require both collaborative soft skills and math skills. Claire Cain Miller writes:
“Jobs that require both socializing and thinking, especially mathematically, have fared best in employment and pay, [David Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University and author of the study] found. They include those held by doctors and engineers. The jobs that require social skills but not math skills have also grown; lawyers and child-care workers are an example. The jobs that have been rapidly disappearing are those that require neither social nor math skills, like manual labor.”
A nifty graph shows that jobs like bookkeeping or being a bank teller, which require math but minimal social skills, haven’t performed very well in recent years. Fields that are super math-oriented and also require collaboration, like computer science, have boomed, and people who have both sets of skills are relatively scarce. But while American schools are jumping on the STEM bandwagon, no one’s yet shilling for classes in emotional intelligence—even though that may be as important as any kind of academic achievement.
Miller writes: “James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, did groundbreaking work concluding that noncognitive skills like character, dependability and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement. They can be taught, he said, yet American schools don’t necessarily do so.”
Tech companies may have recognized this before the rest of us. Google, for example, has researched what makes a good manager and found that successful management is essentially one-on-one meetings, problem-solving, and taking an interest in colleagues’ lives. Basic normal conversation and human interaction, in other words.
Today’s “flipped” classroom—not a thing when I was in school—may be a step in the right direction. Students nowadays listen or watch lectures for homework, alone, and use class time for more collaborative and interactive work. Business and medical schools are also paying more attention to collaboration and problem-solving, assigning students work in small groups. If this leads to a generation of more empathetic doctors and businesspeople, I’m all for it.
Since I was a student who was a quiet bookworm, this kind of thing makes me a little nervous for the introverts among us. I also remember that group projects in school often involved kids who didn’t pull their weight, which was maddening for the more diligent among us. But how to manage a slacker colleague is probably a valuable skill too, if for no other reason than you resolve not to work with him again. I mean, a critical part of teamwork is learning to assemble a really kick-ass team.
So I hope my kids will benefit from this new push to better socialize our students. Don’t get me wrong—I hope they’ll be math nerds too—just, you know, really funny, friendly and warm math nerds.