College and career ready? Are we really teaching the necessary skills kids need for their futures? Studies of business costs resulting from employee behavior show significant losses due to miscommunication (Sanders, 2017). It’s quite possible schools will need to change their focus if they truly want students to succeed.
In her 2017 article, Sanders mentions numerous international reports, surveys, and studies that suggest education is skipping teaching the most important skills employers demand, which have nothing to do with standardized testing. Her account of the lack of communication and collaboration skills among employees topped the list of challenges employers face – across the globe – costing companies a bundle in mistakes and training (Sanders, 2017).
What Educators Should Consider
Sanders identifies a problem that is real threat to our young peoples’ future employment, which will ultimately affect all of us who plan to retire one day. As society is changing, education can’t adapt quickly enough to capture the attention of students about to graduate and join the workforce. Schools need to add “soft skills” into the curriculum, somehow.
The article made me recall a recent conversation with a colleague. A question was posed to me by a seasoned teacher who wanted to understand how my classroom was different than many others, which it is. The nature of the question made me suspicious.
I described my learning environment explaining that often, my students are found teaching themselves, and each other, without any help from me. The room is full of teenagers (mostly high energy boys) but their chatter is on point and their behavior is under control. They don’t always like each other but they treat each other with kindness and respect.
As projects take shape it’s obvious that students are relatively self discipline and responsible even at the young ages of 12 and 13. I choose to believe the question was posed out of frustration, assuming the teacher really wanted to know why, or more so, how this gang of boys, are achieving so much on their own. In many ways it’s because they are learning to use the soft skills I model and teach them.
In my classroom our work is fun. The objectives are clear and personal judgement doesn’t exist, at least not from me. We/they build robots, figure out how to code them, write instructions, and work in small teams.
Everyday student roles change, and every few weeks members are rearranged, that way no one gets too comfortable. I do this because it emulates the real workforce. Our class has real work to do.
They know outcomes are dependent on how well each team operates. This means they must communicate effectively. When teams are faced with failure, they learn to focus on the team’s breakdown in communication and teamwork rather than to blame someone. Students learn to separate themselves from the work they do, understanding that overcoming failure means to build up the skill of others. The class is more about building character than building robots.
Changing the Learning Landscape
In academic terms we call this creating a significant learning environment – CSLE. The hope is that classrooms like my own represent what students will one day find in the real work force, starting with an expectation to think and communicate without direct instruction, and with a purpose.
I wonder how that might look in a different classroom; like math, for instance. What if the process of learning algebra began with a problem instead of a formula? What if students were asked to find a solution by backing into the steps rather than solving for X? Can we offer real world problem solving, at the same time we teach kids to cope with difficult concepts like algebra and coding?
I recall the moment my own child realized that building stairs with his father was the purpose behind learning to calculate slope. What if he was first asked to build stairs in the classroom and ended up discovering the mathematical rationale by collaborating with his classmates and relying on his own investigative powers – would he possibly understand better? At the least, he may have learned something about struggling through tough times in hard courses.
This extraordinary idea may be what students need in the classroom in order to learn to work together and communicate. “Soft skills”, as Sanders (2017) noted, are what’s missing in the workforce. They include the ability to communicate ideas, listen to others, assess a situation, and know intuitively how to proceed in a positive, productive manner. These skills are learned through experience working with others and finding harmony no matter the discord.
Where do we begin?
As teachers, coaches, and parents, we can create environments where soft skills will be developed simply by allowing students to practice a handful of simple skills under the guidance of caring adults. For example, brainstorming for ideas, trial and error, and most importantly, allowing students to fail without penalty, help students experience what it takes to actually collaborate and solve real problems.
Fear of failing often prevents young people from trusting others, possibly because they feel judged. It leaves many kids unwilling to work together. Without practice, they are less prepared for situations they will face in college and careers. By giving them strategies with which to operate and removing the fear, students will often exceed expectations. Here’s an example:
Two middle school girls recently helped me set up a cart of projection equipment. It was a golden opportunity to allow them to work on their soft skills. I didn’t tell them what to do, I told them what success should look like. I gave them the vision and prodded them to use what smarts they already had to investigate, test, troubleshoot, and adapt by working together. I assured them they couldn’t break anything that I couldn’t fix. Each had to anticipate what the other needed and by talking it through they took chances and succeeded. It’s that simple.
If you’re a teacher or administrator, ask yourself if your learning environment is helping students build these essential college and career ready skills. If not, I urge you to create an environment free of judgement that encourages teamwork and inspires your students to develop the real skills that will make or break their futures.
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