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The Other Skills

Soft skills are gaining attention. What are they and how do we provide them?

One of the hottest topics in the churning world of education policy is the talk about soft skills, but there are two big problems with the concept that have nothing to do with its value: describing and measuring it.

Research has shown these skills lead to success and persist when taught, and new research last month says colleges and employers are clamoring for students who have them. But soft skills are difficult to list, define and assess. And in the world of education, where definitions and data are key, it makes it hard for advocates to get traction. Beyond that, we are just beginning to find ways to impart these social and emotional skills in the classroom.

An optimistic new report from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development  suggests that strides are being made, but that teachers need support to bring this type of learning to students.

So, what are they, how can we teach them and how can we assess whether students have progressed in learning them?

What are they?

It is called Social Emotional Learning often among educators, but others refer to them as “soft skills”,  “21st century skills” and even “human skills”. And there has even been debates about the proper name for them

“As evidenced by our research, these skills are the most in-demand of any across the entire labor market,” says Vincent Bertram, president of Project Lead the Way, one of the two sponsors of that that new report that surveyed business owners. He says while it is important that colleges and trade schools provide them, they should be a priority throughout K-12 education.

“By starting early, students have opportunities to engage in that learning process, evaluate their progress, and ensure they’re prepared to achieve their goals,” he says.

So given intentional instruction in these skills is a valuable goal, how do we define them.

That study found employers most wanted the following skills, which are often on the list of those trumpeting their importance:

  • Communication
  • Problem-Solving 
  • Collaboration 
  • Creative and Critical Thinking
  • Ethical Reasoning and Mindset

Coming from employers concerned about a bottom line and hiring the right employee, that’s a pretty good list, experts say, and falls in line with what educators believe. Others list things like “grit” or determination. Others say ability to plan and sent goals are very important.

One group  that has been promoting these types of skills for a long time is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in this arena. Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice for CASEL, says that defining the SEL skills can be challenging, but, she says, they have come up with these core competencies.

  • Self-awareness: Know your strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”
  • Self-management: Effectively manage stress, control impulses, and motivate yourself to set and achieve goals.
  • Social awareness: Understand the perspectives of others and empathize with them, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Relationship skills: Communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.
  • Responsible decision-making: Make constructive choices about personal behavior and  social interactions based on ethical standards, safety, and social norms.

Other experts also say they can be better understood by dividing them into three areas: cognitive skills such as executive function, attention control, inhibition or planning ability; emotional competencies that allow students to cope with disappointment, manage emotion and empathize; and social and interpersonal skills that allow students to read social skills, navigate social situations, resolve conflict and collaborate with others.

How can they be taught.

So with a better understanding of what they are, how does a school or a teacher find time to fit this type of instruction into a busy day. There are probably three ways: by intentionally talking about them and explaining why they are important, by introducing them into  work on a lesson and by showing how they are at work in characters that are being studied or how they have been critical in the development of a concepts the students are learning

Schlinger says it is a good idea to have separate lessons intentionally teaching these skills, but they can also be blended into the classroom work. And a new report from Mind/Shift suggests strategies for teachers to accomplish it throughout the day.

Schlinger says teachers set up situations where students must collaborate as often as possible, even in simple tasks –  and understand how to help students learn from them.

“Promote social emotional learning while teaching their academic content through the use of cooperative structures, reflective practices, perspective taking/role playing and situations like that,” she says. “Teachers can also intentionally develop meaningful relationships with each of their students and support relationships of students with each other and create a safe and supportive classroom environment with shared expectations, norms and routines for how to interact with each other

They can even provide opportunities for students to have a voice – to lead lessons, to direct their learning, and to contribute to problem solving for the classroom, she says.

Within lessons, they can point out when these skills come into play. So, for instance, if a character in a book shows self-awareness and changes course or two characters gain from cooperative work, a teacher can point it out and ask students to think and talk about it. If a historical figure’s decision-making process was particularly noteworthy, students might be asked to look at the stages of it.  If an important theory in science grew out of a lot of trial and error (as so many do) that can be the subject of a discussion.

Bertram says he believes they are most likely to be learned when students are faced with real-world problems and projects.

“Students learn best by applying their knowledge and abilities in context. We can best provide transportable skills by promoting activity-based, project-based- and problem-based instruction that centers on real-world problem solving,” he says.

And how do we know if a student gets it?

Because these are such “human skills” a teacher can generally spot how well students are understanding and adopting these skills and determine where they need work. They may need to formally monitor and record these assessments to make them a conscious part of their work

Bertran believes they can be formally assessed, and Project Lead the Way as part of its curriculum in high schools has an assessment that scores students on transferrable skills.

CASEL also has a number of assessments for the skills and there are a number online and a surprising number of measures for them There as also a number of initiatives to develop different credentials for the skills that then could be “stacked” by students with their more traditional learning to represent their skills in these areas.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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