Thursday, March 20, 2014

alligators and soft skills

We wrestle with alligators.

Education is one of those alligators.  William Morris said, "man is a learning animal."  Google that phrase and  it auto-corrects to "man is NOT a learning animal."  Wrestling.
With alligators.

We don't agree on the purpose of education.  Does it prepare citizens for life in a democratic society? Keep us economically competetive? Or enable the individual to lead an examined life?

We don't agree on what to teach.  The wisdom of our civilization?  If so, whose list of great literature do we use?  Or is this true:  "Since we cannot know what knowledge will be needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance."

We don't agree on how to teach. Direct instruction?(sounds boring, right?  You'll want to check this out!) Computer assisted learning?  Montessori method?

And we certainly don't agree on what to assess and how. "Imagining a new college entrance exam," a blog entry written by Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American, got me thinking.

Here's my quick list of notes as I thought about education and assessment:

convergent vs divergent thinking
analytical vs creative thinking (see Ken Robinson)
intelligence vs effort mindset (see Carol Dweck)
pessimist vs optimist mindset (see Martin Seligman)
knower vs learner mindset (check the table of contents to find it!)
IQ vs EQ
intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation (see Dan Pink)
hard vs soft skills:  this one is so much fun, I included two bits trolled from Mr. Google:

Investopedia's Definition of 'Hard Skills'

Specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured. By contrast, soft skills are less tangible and harder to quantify. Examples of hard skills include job skills like typing, writing, math, reading and the ability to use software programs; soft skills are personality-driven skills like etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.

BeMyCareerCoach blog on the difference between hard skills and soft skills:
  • Hard skills can be learned in school and from books.  There are usually designated level of competency and a direct path as to how to excel with each hard skill.  For example, accounting is a hard skill.  You can take basic accounting and then advanced accounting courses.  You can then work to get experience and then take an exam and be certified as a CPA, etc..  In contrast, there is no simple path to learn soft skills.  Most soft skills are not taught well in school and have to be learned on the job by trial and error

Soft skills are not taught well in school?  Here's a group that is trying.

And the soft skill du jour?  Grit. "Can grit be taught?"  

Here's my take on this whole constellation of ideas: 
if grit -- or creativity or ethics or curiosity -- are simply added as CONTENT to conventional education and taught explicitly, it will fail because the motivational system is still external, extrinsic, teacher-driven.  Students will be evaluated on 'grit' as well as on reading and math.  We'll still be stuck in an 'intelligence mindset.' Grit will simply become a new kind of intelligence. You've got it or you don't.  How do you work harder on grit?  Grit may very well be the key to success, but does that mean it should become a new school subject?  Reminds me of the period twenty years ago when we decided that schools weren't teaching students how to think so 'thinking skills' became a new subject.  And a whole new cottage industry was born.

No, learning grit and creativity and teamwork and resilience and intrinsic motivation must be embedded in the curriculum and in the language and culture of the school.  A school that consistently tells children what to do and then rewards them for doing it and punishes them for not doing it will always be actively working to suppress and destroy intrinsic motivation. 

Want to promote the growth of intrinsic motivation?  Create a school where children are invited to make choices of what they will work on and when.  Allow them to choose how to demonstrate mastery and accomplishment.

And when they choose work that interests them, and that interest blossoms and their projects grow in scope and scale, they'll develop perseverence.  

And when they make a six-foot tall drawing of a baby giraffe with a six-foot long report to match, because that is how tall a baby giraffe actually is, you're watching creativity at work.

And if you want them to develop teamwork, encourage them to work together.  And when there is friction, and the team isn't working so well together, help them to sort out what went wrong, and what they can do differently next time.  Allow them to do this as the norm.  Not during teamwork time on Tuesday afternoon.

Children learn these skills by doing them; and get better at them by practicing all day long every day under the direction of trained adults who take the time at teachable-moments to talk about  what's working and what's not and what will you do differently next time?