Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The actual social skills shortage

So do the best jobs require social skills? In her Sunday Times Op-Ed, Claire Cain Miller provides abundant evidence that the best paying, most enduring jobs do, indeed, increasingly require these. Consider how automation, robotics, and outsourcing to India have eliminated more and more mechanical and technical jobs in this country. It's an argument that we've been hearing at least since Daniel Pink.

Miller cites Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who

did groundbreaking work concluding that noncognitive skills like character, dependability and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.
It's not clear, however, how much research Heckman has done to back up his second claim:
They [character, dependability and perseverance] can be taught, he said, yet American schools don’t necessarily do so.
Is the noble prize winning economist also an expert in cognitive science and pedagogy?

Miller, too, appears to believe schools can make a difference:
to prepare students for the change in the way we work, the skills that schools teach may need to change. Social skills are rarely emphasized in traditional education.
Also weighing in is David Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University:
Preschool classrooms, Mr. Deming said, look a lot like the modern work world. Children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups, and their most important skills are sharing and negotiating with others. But that soon ends, replaced by lecture-style teaching of hard skills, with less peer interaction.
If Deming truly believes that what follows preschool is lecture style teaching of hard skills, he hasn't been in a K12 classroom in a very, very long time.

Assuming that social skills can be taught in classrooms, how would one teach them? All Miller has to say about this is that some schools are experimenting:
At many business and medical schools, students are assigned to small groups to complete their work. So-called flipped classrooms assign video lectures before class and reserve class for discussion or group work. The idea is that traditional lectures involve too little interaction and can be done just as well online.
For a debunking of this last "idea," see Sunday's other Op-Ed. Also, the more time you spend viewing lectures outside of class, the less time you have for group activities outside of class. Is the classroom really the place for group activities? As Miller reports Deborah Slaner Larkin, chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation, as saying:
Another way to teach these skills is through group activities like sports, band or drama.. Students learn important workplace skills, she said: trusting one another, bringing out one another’s strengths and being coachable.
Of course, such opportunities have been around for a very long time--along with play grounds and play dates. Perhaps this is one reason why most people--neurotypical people--have social skills, and why we never hear about businesses lamenting a social skills shortage (for all the other skill shortages they do lament).

What about individuals on the autistic spectrum? Miller has nothing to say about this population, which is ironic, since this is the one population whom a social skills curriculum potentially benefits.

Everything in Miller's piece suggests that people with autism are doomed to deep unemployment. While this, too, reflects a sad reality, let's consider what kinds of social skills really are necessary for workplace success. Here's Miller citing Deming on the economic value of interpersonal skills:
Say two workers are publishing a research paper. If one excels at data analysis and the other at writing, they would be more productive and create a better product if they collaborated. But if they lack interpersonal skills, the cost of working together might be too high to make the partnership productive.
If we're talking about the psychological cost of working together, it strikes me that the real problem isn't autism, but sociopathy. I've said it before here, and I said it again in my comment on the Times piece:
If businesses are savvy about hiring, they shouldn't be avoiding individuals on the autistic spectrum, who are often quite ethical and hardworking, and, while often socially awkward, are rarely socially nasty. Businesses should instead be avoiding the charming sociopaths who look great in interviews but make life miserable for everyone but their superiors as they work their way through the ranks. 
When people talk about poor social skills, they often conflate two very different things.

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