As she exited the room, she smiled and spoke sincerely, “Thank You, Mr. McGough.” This display of positive social interaction appeared to be as natural for her as kneeling to tie a pair of noisy shoelaces that tap out a tickling beat on the school floor. As the only student who thanks me on a daily basis for my teaching efforts, she certainly stands out from the rest of her technology-infused classmates who exit the room connected to some type of electronic music device.
Her gratitude and kindness is rare and exceptional, but should it be?
In the second decade of the 21st Century, public schools are evolving to meet the economic, social, and political demands of a new technologically-connected era by adopting higher academic standards and infusing technology into classroom practices. At the end of the schooling experience, the ultimate goal for any parent or guardian is that their children find a career pathway that is challenging and allows them to be financially independent. Although I am an advocate for these reform initiatives, there is a hidden sociocultural force threatening the equitable nature of schooling. As students begin to navigate a more rigorous and technologically-connected school experience, they are losing a host of “soft skills” that place their future employability in peril.
As a high school English teacher, I work from the simple premise that ALL students have the capacity to learn. As a result of this foundational belief, I find myself helping students who truly do not ask for…nor do they appreciate my efforts. A negative attitude does not stop me from trying to help a student to understand a concept or develop an appropriate skill, but do the surly or complacent receive the very best I have to offer? The simple answer is, “No.”
What can be done to address the inequality that is developing between those students with “soft skills” and those who are left wanting?
First, a little background is necessary to understand how this new “soft skills” gap is beginning to emerge. The very programs that are trying to reform education may be contributing to this new form of inequality. Let’s look at a small example. The Common Core State Standards(CCSS) in English Language Arts (ELA) were developed to standardize curricula across the nation at the state-level. The marketing strategy of the CCSS promotes the message that all students who meet the rigorous demands of these standards will be “college and career ready.” English language arts instruction has been divided into four pillars of instruction: reading, writing, language, and speaking & listening. The inequality is not in the standards themselves but in the overemphasis emphasis placed on some of them.
The current, high-stakes, standardized testing regiment places more value on three of the CCSS pillars (reading, writing, and language), and it appears to devalue the fourth (speaking & listening). It is difficult to develop an objective assessment for the type of “soft skills” that are required in Pillar 4: speaking and listening. Those standards that have assessment items on the state test are receiving a larger amount of attention while “soft skills” development is once again skipped as a non-tested skill. Let’s be honest…expressing genuine gratitude and developing positive relationships is a career readiness “soft skill” that will be more useful to the learner than the knowledge of the proper use of the semicolon.
The Career Readiness Institute is built on the belief that technology innovation and increased academic expectations are necessary for the advancement of the American education system, but it is equally important that our students never lose the capacity for those career ready “soft skills” such as kindness and the ability to communicate in a positive manner.
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Gregory M. McGough, blogger & social media strategist
My son’s ice hockey team has a win/loss record of 0-2. They were outscored in the last game 7-0. As a parent helper, I had the duty to oversee the “sin bin” or penalty box for those players who broke safety rules. One of the great advantages to working this duty is the close proximity to the player’s bench. In the first period of play, the other team scored five goals with relative ease. Each time the players came off of the ice, the coach drew the previous play on the white board and explained the player’s inconsistencies and errors in play. His voice was stern and his attitude resolute. The boys listened and the hockey game continued. After each of the goals, the coach’s attitude stayed consistent as his whiteboard talks continued. In the second period, the other team only scored one goal. The coach’s demeanor changed instantly as he congratulated the boys on their own personal victories. They were now listening to him and their positional play had improved. He explained that the scoreboard proved that they were getting better. In the third period, the other team scored only one more goal. The coach continued to praise the boys for their individual improvements in playing the right positions.
Many writer’s have written about the power of athletics to provide a crucible where young athletes can burn off negative attitudes in the heat of competition, and in the right conditions, these athletes are sometimes left with a set of “soft skills” that will improve all aspects of their lives. In this case, I watched as a group of young boys learned how to take criticism and improve their individual skills and abilities so that the team would function better. When my son got in the car, he was happy because he had not been defeated; his coach taught him a healthy way to deal with loss and his own personal inadequacies. My son learned what it means to persist in the face of loss and work harder to overcome his weaknesses. Thanks to his coach this loss made my son a better hockey player and learner.
This is the type of career-skills’ lesson that must be taught in our classrooms on a daily basis. Students should be allowed to return to assignments multiple times in a formative-style revision process. Grades should only be used to indicate current levels of academic achievement. Those who do not get the material or develop the proper skill set should be given low scores and made aware of their errors. Once they are aware of their areas of weakness, they should be given multiple chances to show growth and understanding. This type of learning environment will provide two benefits. It allows the teacher to truly mark all errors and provide an honest assessment of the student’s current ability. Secondly, the student can take the feedback and learn from the experience. This type of process will help to create students who develop the “soft-skill” of persistence.
How do you provide students with honest feedback that leads to actual student growth and learning?
Follow us on Twitter at @CareerRI
Gregory M. McGough, M.Ed., Blogger & Social Media Strategist