A Drive Time Musing – Do Soft Skills Belong in the Common Core?

On my 40-minute drive into work I usually occupy my mind with one of three things. The default is an unproductive argument with someone who isn’t there about something that never happened (as Anne Lamott might put it). Best is a quiet step-by-step “pre-flection” on the day ahead. Somewhere in between is a musing on connections between things I really have heard, read, said, or done.

Recently, I’ve been musing about the upcoming Common Core assessments and my experiences in the last three years participating in Lesson2Life – a professional development offered by the Arizona K12 Center.

In Lesson2Life teachers spend three days visiting workplaces and talking to workers about their jobs. The aim is to better prepare us to create units that reflect realistic job activities and to be ready to answer the famous question: “When am I ever going to use this?” (I described some of my Lesson2life experiences in Teachers Need Vocational Ed., Too)

The employees who work in technical fields assert the need to be able to solve complicated multistep problems. The employees in fields requiring a university degree emphasize the need to read and write professionally.

But what is universal, from positions requiring no more than a high school degree to those requiring a Ph.D is the need for workers to be competent in the “soft” skills – like those listed in 7 Soft Skills You Need To Get Hired In 2013:
•    Listening
•    Adaptability
•    Teamwork
•    Judgment
•    Integrity and Ethics
•    Communication
•    Positive Demeanor

It troubles me that only content readiness is assessed by either the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College or Careers (PARCC) or their competitors, Smarter Balanced, not personal or interpersonal readiness.

Yet, who is better prepared for college or a career: The candidate who can solve a really hard math problem, or the candidate with integrity and a positive demeanor who listens, adapts, collaborates, and can also solve a really hard math problem?

I’m a member of Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Teacher Advisory Group. At our first meeting I brought up this exact point. Superintendent Huppenthal responded positively, relating about how kids he knew had collaborated on a project by using Google docs and other productivity tools – just like they would be expected to know how to do in the 21st Century world of work.

But another member of the group said that a lot of the questions in the Common Core assessments require problem-solving and analysis, which are also considered soft skills.

A different member said collaboration couldn’t really be assessed in a standardized test.

In my drive time musings I’ve taken issue with both these colleagues. If problem-solving and analysis are soft skills, then they’re cerebral soft skills – as opposed to personal and interpersonal soft skills – the kind I referred to.

And who says you can’t assess them? Here’s an example of how it’s done. In Lesson2Life, I’ve toured Tucson Electric and Power and learned about a problem-solving task they give to job candidates. The trick is there aren’t enough resources for everyone and some tension builds.The Human Resources people aren’t looking for who will complete the task, but who will reach out to others and share the limited materials.

Assessing soft skills in school would require a whole new look at what assessment means and looks like. But it’s already happening elsewhere. A Google search for Test for Soft Skills returned plenty of online tests and tutorials. There was even a report about how Graduate Management Admissions Council has introduced Reflect, a commercial product which tests students’ soft skills (but not for admission).

While you’re driving to work here are some questions I challenge you to grapple with:

  • Can organizations that claim to assess career readiness fairly ignore personal and interpersonal skills?
  • Can you quantitatively measure soft skills?
  • Where would they fit in the Common Core?

What challenges do you have for my drive time?

 

 

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