For years, we’ve been referring to things like communication, leadership, and flexibility as "soft skills." We know these skills are important. Articles, research, studies, and experts all agree that these “other” skills, or personal characteristics or habits that can't really be measured or tested, are essential to individual success. After nearly two decades in the classroom, I’ve talked to other teachers about the value of soft skills countless times. Now as an assistant principal, that conversation is part of every dialogue I have about students.
There is consensus that building these skills benefits children’s academic learning, home lives, and respective futures. While this has always been the case, it’s even more apparent right now, during this unprecedented time. I’m going to venture a guess that you, your family, and your kids are constantly using these so-called soft skills to get through these days of self-quarantining and social distancing. They are what help you stay calm, make it work, and just figure things out. I would call these skills essential, far reaching, and critical. So, I agree with educator Trevor Muir: We need to retire the term "soft skills."
These are not just nice-to-have skills.
Let’s start calling them essential skills instead.
There are so many valuable skills we can be encouraging our kids and students to develop. In just thinking of terms that start with C alone, think about: communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and confidence. While difficult to measure by tests, a student’s future success and happiness may very well hinge on skills like these.
By just looking at a few professions, we can see how important these essential skills are. Think of a baseball umpire, for example. They absolutely better be ready to exhibit their confidence, sense of responsibility, and teamwork to excel at their job. Consider educators. They have to be able to collaborate, have an excellent work ethic, and be a natural problem solver. Even a professional YouTuber (which I know many students aspire to be) needs to have good time management, be self-motivated, and be a clear communicator.
We must prepare our kids and students with these essential skills as early as possible. No, they’re not easy to measure or test kids on, but we owe it to them to get them ready for life and the world. If we’re raising kids who can’t handle what their lives will demand of them, then revisiting and revising their learning experience is necessary. We need to do better.
First, we need to work to restore balance in education.
If you’re going to talk about reimagining the skills we teach our youth, then you definitely have to tackle the topic of overall priorities in our education system. No one set out for this to be the goal. We don’t want a system that measures a student or school based on a single test or a single year. Yet, here we are in an era of teaching to the test. With so much real and implied pressure put on teachers around testing and standards, it’s hard to carve out the energy to also teach social skills and build emotional intelligence in our students.
Instructional budget is also a big part of this conversation. I’m not talking about dollars and cents here, but rather asking an important question. How much time, energy, and professional learning are we willing to devote toward explicitly and implicitly creating cultures and activities that foster essential-skills practice?
This is a steep hill to climb. When our budgets don’t value these skills or emphasize them in schools, it leads to fractured communities and expectations. But balance is possible.
Which came first—the community or the school?
Do communities, schools, and individual classrooms share the same values? Do we have the same vision about preparing a child for the future? As I think about those questions, I'm reminded of parent-teacher conferences. Those usually involve parents coming to meet the teacher, discuss the overall curriculum, go over child’s progress within that curriculum. There is value in that. However, there are concerns that come up over and over again across families, languages, and economic demographics as well.
Does my child make and maintain friendships? How do they react when they don’t get it? Do they work well in groups? Can they ask for help? Do they demonstrate independence?
We often focus on scores and labeling kids with a number or letter, but we also need to be talking about relationships, resilience, and independence. I often had parents come in to talk to me who were most concerned with the overall question, “Is my kid on the right academic path?” But there’s more to it than that.
I’d like to see our schools and communities promote, celebrate, and explicitly discuss the value of essential skills. In this article, educator Dr. Lori Koerner shares how more child-centered assessment techniques are at our fingertips than before. She encourages looking at data in a different way by really getting to know students and assessing them beyond just tests and scores.
This is essential for developing a child’s social-emotional skills as well as their academic ones. Plus, it’s information parents crave. Yes, this might challenge traditional thought and the way we measure achievement, but shifts such as this can help schools lead as we build new community norms and better prepare our children for success in the future. Isn’t this what we should be doing as educators?
Parents and teachers can work together to regain the agency to teach essential skills.
Crafting a culture that demonstrates the values of essential skills is a big undertaking, but it can be accomplished by taking small steps. One way I've tried to do this is through the homework we assign. Through a free program called the Let Grow Project, I sent my students home with the task of doing something completely on their own, after receiving permission from a parent or guardian. (You can get a mini version of this project from Let Grow through this free Independence Kit.)
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. The project is really meant to empower kids to choose something they want to do independently. Then it’s pretty amazing to see what happens next as they set out to conquer it. Children and families both reshape their view of the child as someone who can have interests, act on those interests, and learn along the way.
This was the case for one of my third grade students, who decided to test her creativity when she decided to make a cardboard fort with her older brother. As they constructed their project, her neighbor came along and asked to help, too.
While this task doesn’t seem too complex on the surface, consider that she was able to develop so many essential skills during this project. She had to be creative, resourceful, and even bring in her negotiation skills (she was collaborating with her brother, after all). This project in independence was definitely a success. And it was all because of a simple homework assignment, which probably didn’t feel like homework to her at all.
So let’s not give up on teaching essential skills.
We can’t wait to start taking whatever small steps our schools and communities are ready to take. We know how important it is for our kids’ future to have these skills, so let’s give them room to grow and the experiences necessary to develop them. Let’s stop using the term "soft skills" and no longer talk about them like they’re secondary to anything.
This could be a turning point. Like our children when they realize a game isn’t fun anymore, let’s not be afraid to hit the reset button.