Finding Soft Skills in Mathematics Isn’t As Hard As You Might Think


The world of education is no stranger to public debate and commentary, but few criticisms sting quite as much as the claim that we are failing to teach our kids what matters most. Unfortunately, it’s exactly this accusation that has surfaced amidst the interest in soft skills which currently dominates the contemporary employment market.

Not just employers, but recruiters, universities and other stakeholders are despairing over students who leave school equipped with plenty of hard skills, but zero soft skills.

And who gets the blame?

You guessed it. We do.

But before we get defensive, let’s break things down first.

  • Hard skills are the discrete, knowledge-based competencies around which curricula are built. These might be broad (reading, writing, mathematics) or specific skills within a particular discipline (eg, hard mathematical skills include arithmetic, measurement and algebra).
  • Soft skills are general competencies that are much harder to actually ‘teach’ or assess but are nonetheless employed in diverse situations. Teamwork, communication and resilience are just a few examples.

Being the content-driven subject that it is, mathematics has become an easy target for the soft skill crusaders. The stereotype of the mathematics geek who can differentiate equations with ease, but struggles to hold a conversation, really hasn’t helped us.

For mathematics teachers, this presents a complex dilemma. Our curricula are almost entirely built around specific mathematical competencies — that is to say, not soft skills but hard ones. How do we strike the balance?

The good news is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Mathematics already fosters a significant number of soft skills. We just tend to forget what they are.

We’ll go through them individually in a moment, but the trick is to make these soft skills explicit to your students. You don’t need an entire lesson plan that aims to ‘teach’ collaboration, but you can develop routines for positive collaboration when you set a group task.

Let’s take a look at some of the soft skills that mathematics brings into focus.

Problem-solving and reasoning

Why it’s important

Most careers on offer today also come with challenging problems that need to be solved confidently and efficiently. Teachers are probably the last people who need to be reminded of how important this is as a soft skill.

Sometimes these are immediate problems that demand an individual response, but in other cases there might be large-scale issues that need to be addressed. In either case, mathematics provides the perfect training ground for such an invaluable soft skill.

Why mathematics helps

The entire discipline of mathematics is built around problems that need to be solved. Simple as that.

But don’t rest on your laurels just yet. Make the thinking behind problem-solving visible. Explicitly identify the processes students can go through when they are confronted with a problem they do not know how to solve. For example,

Look for what is familiar → Apply what I already know → Assess the result → Ask for help

Doing this allows students to see that instead of just ‘doing mathematics’, they are using a soft skill that is transferable to almost any problem life can throw at them.


Why it’s important

Again, teachers probably don’t need to be told why resilience is an important soft skill. Remember your first day in front of a class?

The jobs market requires a bit of grit, regardless of what profession you happen to be in. There’s an expectation that you’ll be a self-starter, able to take feedback and criticism where appropriate, and you’ll be able to tackle challenges that put you outside of your comfort zone. Without resilience, everything seems insurmountable.

Why mathematics helps

Fear of failure is high in mathematics, so much so that mathematics anxiety is a acknowledged phenomenon in educational psychology. Students perceive the stakes to be much higher in a subject where there is only one correct answer and the pervasive myth that one needs a ‘mathematics brain’ to have any chance at success doesn’t help either.

But this same anxiety can be used to develop resilience instead of trauma if we give students the right tools to manage it.

Openly tell students that anxiety and discomfort can be part of the learning process and give them some easy-to-use procedures that they can employ if they start to feel overwhelmed. Acknowledging it as normal will remove the feeling of isolation that can come with a lack of understanding and facilitate a growth mindset that allows them to respond proactively to difficult situations.

Assessments are also a good opportunity to teach students that their grade is not an indication of their self-worth. Have them complete a self-reflection when you return their work, so they can begin to see that owning one’s mistakes and planning for future improvement is a soft skill of its own.


Why it’s important

The days of solitary and the office cubicle culture have become history. Employers understand that they get more ‘bang for their buck’ by employing people who can put their heads together in order to get things done in half the time, and with maximum creativity.

Take a look around your classroom during any group activity and you will no doubt notice a range of … ‘problematic’, shall we say, operators. They range from the despotic to the reclusive, with a few tantrum-throwers in the mix just to keep things interesting.

Evidently, collaboration is a soft skill that we can’t take for granted.

Why mathematics helps

Ask a non-mathematics teacher to picture a mathematics classroom and they will likely think of rigidly arranged single desks where students work individually, the only noise being the tap of numbers being punched into calculators.

But high-level mathematics — the sort that is currently driving technological and scientific innovation in the digital era — almost always involves professionals working together to deliver innovative solutions. The best classrooms do this too.

If you don’t already use group work in your lessons, never fear. It doesn’t have to be a radical departure from your teaching style. The most basic approach could just be to let students compare and discuss solutions to a problem after they have had time to work individually.

In an ideal world, students wouldn’t need guidance to manage a collegial and productive chat — but we all know it doesn’t work like that. For this reason, it’s best to scaffold discussions with a protocol in order to make the expectations of productive collaboration clear. Many students literally do not know what is appropriate in a group situation until you make it clear. Set clear parameters that include:

  • the appropriate times at which each person can speak
  • the amount of time each person can speak
  • methods (or even direct statements) that can be used to frame critical feedback or disagreement.

Eventually, students won’t need such specific parameters. The art of collaboration will become second nature.

The soft skills in mathematics don’t have to be hard. Remember, they already exist in your students. All you need to do is show them where those skills are.

Categories Mathematics

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