Special Report

‘Soft Skills’ in Big Demand

By Catherine Gewertz — June 07, 2007 10 min read
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Between tasks in Algebra 2, Valari Jacobsen checks her grades in the class. Accessing her personal page on the school’s computer system, she sees she has a 71 percent in course content. She knows she needs to step that up.

But she’s doing really well in collaborating with her peers: Her score is 100 percent. And in oral communication, she has a 135 percent.

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Unusual as it may seem, Jacobsen, an 18-year-old senior, is being evaluated on oral communication and on how well she works with other students in her mathematics class at Sacramento New Technology High School. Those interpersonal skills are among 10 “learning outcomes” students here must master as they progress through all their academic subjects. The outcomes are embedded in complex projects designed to build those skills as well as course-content knowledge.

The approach to learning is one response to national concern among policy and business leaders that teenagers are emerging from high school without the set of skills they need to thrive in college and the workplace. Some experts refer to those competencies as “soft” or “applied” skills. Some call them 21st-century skills.

In an increasingly global, technological economy, they say, it isn’t enough to be academically strong. Young people must also be able to work comfortably with people from other cultures, solve problems creatively, write and speak well, think in a multidisciplinary way, and evaluate information critically. And they need to be punctual, dependable, and industrious.

“This skills set is the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy,” says Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based coalition of business and education groups that advocates infusing such skills into education.

Work Ethic

Jacobsen’s grade depends not only on her mastery of algebraic concepts and applications, but also on her skill with technology, critical thinking, written and oral presentation, and whether she’s demonstrated a good work ethic on project teams with other students.

Students in her Algebra 2 class spent weeks researching the relative economies of gas-powered and hybrid vehicles. Each team of students chose one of 11 models available in both engine types. Using gasoline prices, the cars’ price tags, and their mileage capabilities, the students calculated what the gas and hybrid version of each model cost per mile.

In an increasingly global, technological economy it isn’t enough to be academically strong.

They had to convert those findings into algebraic equations, and graph them. They used various computer applications to incorporate their findings into formal presentations that they gave before a panel of parents acting as undecided shoppers. They used their data to analyze and discuss the monetary benefits and drawbacks of the two versions of each model.

Tim Hebert, the teacher who oversaw that project, used the students’ calculations to grade them on mathematical content, and their final presentations to evaluate them on oral and written communication. Their discussion with the panelists helped him judge their critical-thinking skills, and seeing how they used computers informed his evaluation of their technological literacy.

He also graded their “citizenship and ethics” and collaboration by watching how they conducted themselves, individually and in groups, throughout the project, from showing up on time to making quality contributions to their teams.

Part of the collaboration grade came from students. As project-team members, they were to decide what they needed to research and when various steps of the project needed to be completed. At the end, they evaluate one another—anonymously.

“It’s like, is someone always e-mailing when they should be working? Are they off-task? Are they completing assignments?” Jacobsen says.

Combining Subjects

Projects and classes are often cross-disciplinary at Sacramento New Tech, reflecting a growing consensus among business leaders that jobs increasingly demand thinking that encompasses multiple subject areas.

A recent project in a geography and English course for freshmen, for instance, required the students to research a bill before Congress proposing a timeline for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. They bolstered their knowledge of the war and the region with introductory resources provided by their two teachers, and had to build a case for why Congress should or should not approve the measure. As usual at New Tech, each team of students divvied up key tasks among its members, relying on one another to keep up and do their jobs.

“Doing it this way is good for me, because in the future when I have an internship, or work, I can see better what a group needs to do, and what my part in it is,” says Anthony Ramirez, 14, during a brief break in his work.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning offers the best way for students to acquire the range of skills the modern economy demands of them, says Bob Pearlman, the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, a Napa, Calif.-based group that supports Napa New Technology High School, which opened as a model for the project-based approach in 1996.

The foundation now supports the design’s use at 24 additional schools, including Sacramento New Tech High, which is in its fourth year. All schools also feature intensive, advanced use of technology. (The foundation’s work is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps underwrite Diplomas Count.)

“For kids to master 21st-century skills, you need a system which embeds the skills in the projects they do, and they need to be assessed on them,” Pearlman says. “Collaboration is important, so you’ve got to work in teams. You don’t get critical thinking unless you have complex projects that go in a lot of directions and have very serious content and rigor.”

You don’t get critical thinking unless you have complex projects that go in a lot of directions and have very serious content and rigor.”

Learning to teach that way isn’t easy. Pearlman says it takes at least a year or two of training and support for teachers to get the hang of designing projects with enough depth to incorporate all the academic and soft skills and those in state standards, and the power to engage students. At Sacramento New Tech High, teachers meet in weekly “critical friends” sessions to discuss and refine their projects. Teachers more experienced in the method help the newer ones along.

Pearlman says the school’s modest size—365 students—is also important to its function, because it helps build the collegiality among students, and between staff and students, that lends itself to teamwork.

A small scale also enables staff members to coach students on additional real-world skills. Since students know their teachers and their principal so well, it’s harder for them to get away with behavior that wouldn’t get them far in the world beyond high school.

“I can’t stand when kids spend more time looking at the tops of their shoes than in my eyes when we are talking,” says Sacramento New Tech High Principal Paula M. Hanzel. She and her teachers often remind students to make eye contact when speaking. To Hanzel, such interpersonal skills will prove just as important to her students’ futures as writing a great paper.

“This is about understanding the written and unwritten rules of the world,” says the down-to-earth former math and social studies teacher. “Some of the access to that world is through comportment.”

The result of all this coaching, Hanzel hopes, will be “round” students who can thrive in a changing world.

And they will enter that world with digital portfolios showing what they can do. For four years, students build and refine those, adding samples of work that show their mastery of course content, critical thinking, collaboration, and the other learning outcomes. Portfolios include a résumé, a personal statement, and letters of reference. Students can burn copies of the portfolio onto DVDs to give to potential employers or college-admissions counselors. Soon, they will be available online from any computer.

The need to build a wide range of soft skills necessary for success in work and college has been discussed in policy circles for years. A 1991 report by the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, called the SCANS report, called for many of the same competencies that educators and business leaders have been urging in a flurry of reports during the past year.

Scholars who have watched the rise and fall of the “soft skills” agenda say it lost visibility and momentum in the massive national push for better academic performance, driven by the standards movement and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. They attribute its resurgence to a renewed cycle of concern about competitive pressures on the United States in an increasingly global economy.

“What really needs to happen is to bring these [two agendas] back together,” says Lauren B. Resnick, who worked on the 1991 report and is the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center. “They never should have been separated in the first place.”

‘Survival Skills’

More schools are recognizing the need for both, and trying in varying ways to respond. At University Park Campus High School in Worcester, Mass., classes feature a lot of written and oral presentations and collaborative projects. At South Carroll High School in Sykesville, Md., students build professional portfolios of their work during their four years. In their junior year, they prepare intensively for a week of mock interviews with representatives of local businesses, who grill them as if they were real job candidates and give them feedback.

Even straight-A students can’t always rely on academic skills. They need to learn to present themselves.’’

“We know these students need these soft skills as survival skills,” says Bonnie McElroy, South Carroll High’s academic facilitator and one of the organizers of the career-readiness event. “Even straight-A students can’t always rely on academic skills. They need to learn to present themselves.”

District leaders in the Lawrence Township schools, in northeast Indianapolis, solicited feedback about their graduates from the local business community six years ago. They learned that the young people needed to be better creative and critical thinkers, and become self-starters—showing enough smarts and initiative to get things done with a minimum of oversight.

Lawrence Township built into its strategic plan a set of 21st-century skills such as higher-order thinking, technological literacy, self-direction, and global awareness. Teachers have spent three years learning how to build those competencies into projects for students, says Leona Jamison, the 16,000-student district’s director of professional development.

Back at Sacramento New Tech, English teacher Christine Coit is planning the next project for her freshman Geo-Lit students.

For their reading of Lord of the Flies, they’ll help her turn the classroom into an island, plastering huge palm fronds and vines everywhere. They’ll act out scenes from the book, stopping in midscene to discuss what makes the characters behave the way they do. Invited by a mock gallery, the students will create artwork linked to the novel’s message about the inherent good or evil in man, and write artists’ statements explaining their work.

It’s a complicated undertaking, trying to weave California’s academic standards and 21st-century skills into an engaging project, Coit says. But she ticks them off on her fingers: She’s covering symbolism and figurative language, reading and responding to literature, and characterization—several of the state standards.

Working in “survival groups” to probe the characters’ motivations will help students develop collaboration skills, and the art exhibit will hone their critical-thinking, writing, and oral-presentation skills, forcing them to analyze and connect concepts and symbols in the book and be able to write and talk about them. All the work, combined, will build their English-content literacy. And immersing themselves in all that—well, Coit hopes that part is just plain fun.

It’s the sort of work that epitomizes the school’s mission, says Mark Morrison, the director of leadership development of the New Technology Foundation.

“It maps to what the world is today,” Morrison says on a visit to the Sacramento school. “We need round people, systems thinkers. We can’t just tinker around the edge of school reform. This kind of work is what’s going to make the difference.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Soft Skills’ in Big Demand


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