“Soft skills”, “21st century skills”, or “learner skills” (as they call it at our school) – these are the new buzz words for education in the 21st century. We’ve probably talked about them to death – especially about how important they are for helping our children succeed in life after school. No one debates this fact. The issue is that we can’t grade these skills the way we grade the subjects our children study in school. We never really know how well they’re tracking in these skills or how much they really understand. It’s not like Math where you can give them a test to see how many answers they get right to figure out how much they really understand about what they’re learning.
Soft Skills – The Learning Process
If you’ve ever watched a toddler or young child learning about the ways of the world, you will notice that they can recite the rules before they know how to follow them. They can tell you that Johnny isn’t sharing the toys, even when they won’t share the toys either. They are able to recognise when someone is doing something wrong before they are able to recognise it in themselves.
Even as they get older, it takes a while to grasp the concepts of what makes them good at a specific skill. For the purpose of discussion, we will look at the quality of good leadership. Children may know what some of the qualities of a good leader are, but what those qualities look like in actions can be ambiguous and open to interpretation. A good leader inspires others, but which actions contribute to that outcome? They may be able to recognise what a good leader looks like, but that doesn’t mean they know how to be a good leader.
There is also the difference between theory and practice. Knowing how one should behave in idea and actually doing it under the pressure of daily life are two completely different experiences. For instance, a good leader has to make tough choices for the betterment of the team. If the choice is an unpopular one, a child might struggle to take it even when it is the better path. Did they choose Sally for the task because Sally is the best person for it or because Sally is their friend?
Soft Skills Assessment
It is difficult for an external party to assess how well a child is doing with these skills without being able to get into the mind of the child. How do you know that a child has mastered the concept versus accidentally doing the right thing? Was it a conscious thought that led to the action or did they stumble upon it? “I will do this because that is what a good leader would do” vs “maybe I’ll just do this and see what happens”. If you tell a child that she has demonstrated good leadership skills in the last project then asked her why she thinks that is so, would she be able to tell you?
The complex nature of such skills does not lend itself to easy assessment.
When our school introduced to us a new program they were using to assess these soft skills, I was intrigued. The program is called “Athena”. Using the the Learner Skills ladders, students are required to self-evaluate how well they are progressing with each skill and provide the evidence to substantiate their claims.
Children can only become better at a skill when they understand the fundamentals of what makes them good at it. They need to know what they have done well and what they need to do better. Being required to think about it through self-reflection is an important part of the process of improvement.
Self-Reflection – Metacognition
It is essential that children learn to think about it for themselves rather than being told by a teacher. Allowing the children to come to the conclusion on their own may be a longer and more tedious process, but the learning is deeper. Research also supports the use of self-reflection for improving learning and performance. It is part of the practice of metacognition – where children have to figure out what they do well and why they do well at it. They identify the areas they need to work on, how they can improve themselves, what they are struggling with, and how they can get help for it.
With Athena, the children are given a skills ladder (of soft skills) and are required to think about how they measure against each skill. They make a self-assessment of where they believe they are at on each ladder and they need to support that assessment with evidence from their experiences. For instance, if the skill is leadership, they need to determine which level of leadership they have attained and provide the examples of things they have done to show they are at that level.
The child’s assessment is then reviewed by their peers for evaluation and feedback is provided. The overall process is moderated by teachers to ensure the quality in the process. Once the children receive their feedback, they have the opportunity to work on it further.
A Skill for the Future
What I like about the Athena program is the teaching of a skill that will continue to serve them in later life. Continuous improvement is a lifelong process no one ever outgrows. Even after the children have stopped using Athena, they can take the lessons they have learned through the process and apply them to other areas of their lives.
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