Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

The Five Success Skills Every Student Should Master

The case for teaching human literacy
By Thomas R. Hoerr — December 11, 2018 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Imagine education as a forest. We love to identify and categorize trees. We try to determine which kind will grow best in this kind of soil, which tree will provide the most shade, what kind of wood will be strongest, which tree will grow the most rapidly, and when a deciduous is preferable to an evergreen tree. Every week, it seems, there’s a debate on why we should plant this kind of tree versus that kind of tree, and what trees will be most useful in the future. We focus so much on trees that we ignore the context, the forests, in which they grow and the regions in which they live.

Of course, trees aren’t the issue, but there’s a reason why this analogy is so apt. It’s natural to give attention to discrete areas that we can seize and understand, but we ignore the larger and more complex issues when we do this.

We cannot let our efforts to teach human literacy be deterred by the fact that these skills are less amenable to measuring and counting than traditional areas."

We educators fall into this forest and trees trap when we focus incessantly on the scholastic skills that students will need in the future, and fail to consider the larger question of how problems are solved. I’ve been reading about digital literacy, workplace-oriented literacy, general literacy, and classical literacy (that would be the 3 R’s). And how long will it be until there is a plea for citizenship literacy?

There’s a good reason for these pronouncements. As the economic world becomes globalized, competition for many jobs transcends political boundaries and continents. We have to wonder whether tomorrow’s technological advances will enhance our ability to solve problems or if they will render our human, carbon-based efforts superfluous. These questions have enormous implications for what schools include in their curriculum.

But if we step back and look at the big picture—if we consider what is essential in every situation, regardless of what technology or the workplace may require—it’s the ability to know oneself and work with others, our human literacy, that is essential for success. Today and tomorrow, people with strong intrapersonal and interpersonal success skills will be better able to solve just about every problem.

On that rare occasion when a problem truly is best solved solo, a strong intrapersonal intelligence provides the self-control needed to focus and fuels the grit required to persevere through frustrations and failures.

If the problem is being addressed by a team, group, committee, or task force—all slightly different configurations that each require people to work together—the group will be more effective when people listen to one another, work to understand each other, and appreciate the differences we possess in background, status, and perspective. Character matters, too. We want to work with honorable people who are motivated to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

The qualities I call the “formative five”—empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit—comprise these intrapersonal and interpersonal success skills and become human literacy.

These success skills must be consciously taught, included in the curriculum at every grade level and in every subject matter. The difference between empathy and sympathy—embracing the feelings held by others and seeing things the way they do versus simply mourning their condition—should be taught to elementary grade students, for example. High school students should investigate when protagonists in literature have exhibited honesty but not integrity. Self-control should be a focus in every class, as students work to improve by identifying and changing habits that are counterproductive to their learning.

Teachers and principals should look for opportunities to help children understand their backgrounds and biases as a first step in appreciating and celebrating others who are different than themselves. A school’s halls and walls should highlight student growth and positive trajectory, not just displaying perfect papers or the art work of the top 20 percent of the students. And everyone appreciating the role of good failures in learning—working to make new mistakes—creates a learning organization.

Teachers and principals sometimes agree that these success skills should be taught, but they add that they don’t have enough time to address them. It’s true that we do a much better job of adding expectations than discarding responsibilities, but these success skills are too important not to be directly taught throughout the curriculum. When we teach empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit, we are developing people who will make a positive contribution in every situation, whether solving a problem at work, coaching a 3rd grade sports team, or being a good friend.

Because we measure what we value, we need to find ways to assess and share students’ progress in these success skills. That doesn’t mean assigning letter grades or numerical scores; it means using rubrics, student reflections, and digital photographs of performances or group efforts to capture where students began and how far they have progressed. Classroom walls and bulletin boards can have photos of students learning about and exhibiting human literacy. The success skills should be taught with intentionality and transparency, so students should be involved in creating the rubrics then reflecting upon and monitoring their progress. We cannot let our efforts to teach human literacy be deterred by the fact that these skills are less amenable to measuring and counting than traditional areas.

When we think about the future and what skills and understandings our students will need to be successful, we must begin with the end in mind: We want to develop good people. By asking what kind of people we want on our team and in our neighborhood, we will appreciate the need to teach human literacy.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as How We Can Develop Good People

Events

School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being 'Growth Mindset' Linked to Higher Test Scores, Student Well-Being in Global Study
The first global study of "growth mindset" found both academic benefits and better well-being among students who think intelligence is not fixed.
4 min read
Conceptual image of growth mindset.
solar22/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion Why Venting When You Have Problems Feels Good—and Why It Doesn’t Work
When you keep talking about what’s bothering you, it keeps the negative emotions alive. Here’s what research says to do instead.
Ethan Kross
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being What the Research Says How Does Sending a Child to School Change a Family's Risk of COVID-19?
In-person schooling that doesn't lead to outbreaks can still raise the risk of kids bringing the virus home, especially in poor families.
3 min read
On Sept. 24, 2020, distance learners are seen on a laptop held by teacher Kristen Giuliano who assists student Jane Wood, 11, in a seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn. A new study finds a family's risk of infection rose if they had a school-age student when schools re-started in person instruction.
Students, assisted by their teacher Kristen Giuliano, work remotely and in-person in a hybrid classroom earlier this year at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
Student Well-Being Teens Are Starting to Get Vaccinated. That's a Big Deal for Schools
Educators are now encouraging their oldest students to get the vaccine, with the hope that it will help normalize school operations.
10 min read
17-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Seventeen-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination for COVID-19 in Atlanta on March 23.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP