Adding “Soft Skills” to Report Cards

Last night, and every other weeknight for that matter, my kitchen table is a story of two boys raised by the same parents who approach their school work from two opposite ends of the spectrum. For my 11 year old, homework time can’t end soon enough. He gets easily frustrated when he encounters something challenging that he can’t quickly and effortlessly complete, and he shuts down. My 9 year old, on the other hand, has developed a series of coping strategies to help him persevere through challenging academic situations with grit and tenacity. These strategies did not manifest themselves on their own. They have been specifically taught to him by his third grade teacher over the past year as a concerted effort to focus on the development of learning skills, also known as soft skills, alongside academic standards and competencies. For many schools, my kids elementary school included, the next iteration of this work is to include soft skill grades on report cards.

The need to teach soft skills like grit in the classroom is not new. Three years ago in a Multibriefs Exclusive, I wrote about to importance of grit in a positive school culture. Upon seeing posters in every classroom in a school visit that read, “Keep calm and have guts” I asked students and teachers what this poster meant to each of them and they unanimously said it meant they needed to practice grit and determination. I noted, “Teachers at this school continually encouraged students to persevere through difficult academic, civic and social situations both in and out of the classroom. It is this fostering of grit, they argued, that would best prepare their students for the real world.” In a Multibriefs Exclusive in October of 2016 I wrote about the importance of assessing work study practices in schools. I wrote, “Employers want to know how well potential employees will work on a team. They want to know that these applicants have great communication and problem-solving skills. They are curious to what degree new employees will have the grit and determination necessary to persevere through a situation and see it to a resolution. If schools are to truly prepare their students for their future, these noncognitive skills must be developed, refined and assessed in much the same way cognitive academic skills are.”

In a recent article for Education Week, author Evie Blad reported on a Maryland  County elementary report card that reports on soft skills like intellectual risk-taking, collaboration, originality, and metacognition (the awareness of one’s own learning processes).
In Montgomery County, Md., elementary school report cards indicate whether students are exhibiting traits like "intellectual risk-taking" and metacognition, which is an awareness of their own learning processes. Similarly, elementary report cards in Austin, Texas chart how well students take responsibility for their own actions, manage their emotions constructively, and interacts with peers and adults. Blad went on to suggest that the biggest challenge for schools looking to add soft skills to their report cards is to figure out how to present the information in a meaningful and useful way for both students and parents. Blad also suggested, “they must tread carefully as researchers urge extra caution in measuring these so-called soft skills and noncognitive traits. Existing measures, including teacher observations and surveys in which students rate their own character strengths, are imprecise and subject to biases that can make them inaccurate, researchers say.” Schools have found different ways to approach this.

In Austin, for example, the inclusion of soft skills is part of a district wide social-emotional-learning plan that includes things like direct instruction of the skills through a research-based curriculum; policy alignment; and efforts to incorporate social-emotional learning into traditional academic instruction. In some New Hampshire schools, as a result of a 2014 statewide effort to develop assessment strategies for soft skills in schools, teachers break down skills to be assessed in each student through performance assessments with clearly defined rubrics. New Hampshire Elementary principal Jonathan Vander Els wrote about developing and refining this process with his teachers in this blog article.

If the primary purpose of schooling is to prepare children to be successful in the workplace, then it is a logical step for schools to be more explicit about the teaching of soft skills. Job search-engines like Monster remind their users that technical skills may get them the interview, but soft skills will win them the job. On their website, they outline six specific soft skills that employers are looking for in job applicants: Communication skills, teamwork and collaboration, adaptability, problem solving, critical observation, and conflict resolution. Monster isn’t alone as other job search resources offer similar advice. They do so because they know employers are looking for these skills in their employees, and to date, our schools haven’t done a good enough job making the development of these skills a priority. That tide may be shifting.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.

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