The Power of a Protocol to Grow Innovative Designs and Deepen Understanding About “Soft” Skills

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

As educators imagine how to develop “soft” skills (e.g., critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and collaboration), there is little consensus of what that looks like and how we can do a better job of incorporating these skills in our assignments and instructional practices.

Art Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a blog entitled Hard Thinking about Soft Skills where they contended that:

“Engaging in these types of thinking, however, doesn’t mean that students engage in them carefully or skillfully. Students can, for instance, collaborate in hasty, sloppy, and superficial ways (Swartz et al., 2008). Simply introducing students to these types of thinking doesn’t ensure that they will develop thinking skills—or the disposition to use those skills effectively when faced with complex problems.”

The goal of this protocol is to promote clarity of a desired skill or disposition. By examining the work that either students produce or teachers design, teachers explore what they mean and how to make it more transparent to students in:

  1. The design of the assignment
  2. The instructional modeling provided
  3. Feedback on that skill or disposition

Example: Creative or Critical Thinking

Let’s take the skill of creative or critical thinking.

The questions that are at the very heart of the protocol:

  • What sort of work does the teacher choose to show that they believe represents creative or critical thinking in the design?
  • What sort of work do students choose when they are invited to show evidence of work that they think is either creative or critical thinking?

The point is to not give the definition and to see what students and/or teachers choose. This can help you understand what is needed to refine a definition and give it common meaning.

At the exhibition of work, groups work in teams of four. They are asked to share whatever work they brought (student or teacher). Remind teachers that this is not to showcase but to examine for definition and meaning. They don’t have to coach students as to what sort of work is worthy of sharing. It creates more inquiry when people choose from their own perspectives.

Questions for the teams:

  • What is this work (give some context)?
  • What does it show?
  • What do you wish it would have shown?
  • What, if anything, surprised you about this work?

After tables have done their job, share across the room and look for patterns/themes.


  • What did this exercise tell you about critical or creative thinking?
  • What do we need to do refine our work in this area?
  • What do we continue to wonder about?

This protocol is simple and gets interesting results. Ideally, it generates a need for continued collaboration on definitions as well as a better understanding of how a skill or disposition becomes more sophisticated over time. That can improve both the quality of assignment designs as well as the necessary instructional moves teachers may identify to develop student practice.

We are working on this with Manchester Public Schools in Connecticut. Stay tuned and sign up for the newsletter to see snippets of the finished work!

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