How Do We Teach and Assess Soft Skills?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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soft skillsThe Atlantic ran a series of posts to imagine “a utopian system of learning” that started with the question, “What should students be expected to know by the time they leave school?”

Responses by educational experts were relatively predictable:

  • Ability to think critically and independently.
  • Leverage and adapt to ever-shifting technology and modes of communication.
  • Navigate and direct their own independent research.
  • Collaborate with others.
  • Knowledge and values required to be democratic citizens — active, informed, participants in our governance.

The Real Question About Soft Skills

Most understand the idea that content matters a lot less and “soft skills” matter a lot more. The real question is do we understand how to teach and assess the soft skills?

Guy Claxton, Art Costa, and Bena Kallick (2016) wrote a powerful article on this very subject that described what it takes to develop a “soft skill” —

Developing a skill seems like a technical matter. But guiding someone to develop an attitude of curiosity or self-evaluation, for example, isn’t like training someone to shoot a rifle or make a béchamel sauce.

Curiosity has a skillful aspect, certainly, but it also involves a deeper pleasure in making discoveries and an openness to novelty and challenge. To develop such inclinations, students need ongoing opportunities, encouragement, and guidance in a wide range of contexts, not just “training.”

What Are We Willing to Do?

We can agree in theory that these “soft skills” or “dispositions” are significant, but to what extent are we willing to step outside our comfort zones?

Would we be willing to …

  • re-imagine the curriculum to make space for them?
  • restructure learning environments where students have more freedom to investigate, collaborate, and create?
  • recalibrate student grading and reporting that communicates degree to which competencies are mastered?
  • embrace the idea of “anytime, anywhere learning” that might reek havoc with the notion of “seat time” and a universal start time and end time for the school day?
  • remain open to students interests, passions, and curiosities that are regularly designed into curricular content?

Create the ‘How’ and the ‘What’

This is why it’s complicated and why it is a problem that one stakeholder group can’t solve. Educators, parents, policy makers, activists, and students need to collaborate on the “WHY” of school first and then have the courage, imagination, and the innovation mindset to create the “HOW” and the “WHAT.”

Watch Simon Sinek‘s Golden Circle Clip for insight into this process:

Learning Personalized is devoted to sharing ideas from teachers, from students, from schools to continue to offer inspiration to others. This new chapter on why school doesn’t have a simple, “one-size-fits-all” model that can be replicated to scale.

Any prototype should capture the imagination, ideals, and aspirations of the local community. That can’t be standardized, although it can be aligned with standards, and that can’t be easily tested (although it can be evaluated with a balanced assessment approach).

Are you willing to step outside your comfort zone?


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