Don’t Try to “Teach” Soft Skills

not-teachingEfforts to teach soft skills frequently lead to teacher frustration and disappointment. This is not because these critical aptitudes can’t be developed, but because the “teaching” approach used often mimics teaching content knowledge.

Soft skills – or as I prefer to call them, Life/Career abilities are the behaviors, mindsets and character traits that contribute to students’ life readiness. Life/Career abilities is a positive label to identify this important domain of student learning. Regardless, of what you call this domain, it is an integral part of learning along with acquiring knowledge and developing skills. Educators must emphasize Life/Career abilities, but embrace a different mindset and not attempt to “teach” these in a traditional sense.

This is because a traditional approach implies that “teaching” is simply imparting new knowledge with expectations that students will retain and recall that knowledge – Present-Practice-Test. This simplistic model may work well when teaching basic vocabulary or other forms of rote learning. However, as learning becomes more complex, experienced teachers understand that more enhanced teaching strategies are required, including developing the context for students, providing applications of knowledge, and using engaging approaches such as inquiry and discovery. While there is some knowledge that is essential to the domain of Life/Career abilities, this domain is primarily focused on behaviors, for which even an enhanced teaching approach will not necessarily result in desired student behavior.

A model for describing and practicing the teaching mindset required for developing Life/Career abilities is that of the parent. Any experienced teacher, who has also been a parent, (or, uncle, aunt, grandparent or other caregiver) recognizes the overlap in skills between effective parenting and quality teaching. This is particularly important when focusing on the behaviors of Life/Career abilities. A better term to apply to this type of instructional mindset is perhaps nurturing: just as a parent nurtures a child’s development, teachers need to nurture the development of Life/Career abilities.

There are five elements that are critical to nurturing; relationships, expectations, providing experiences, modeling and feedback. Any attempt to influence behavior is deeply influenced by human emotions and frequent, positive interaction builds relationships essential for nurturing behaviors. Another essential beginning element is establishing expectations. Using such “presets” – i.e. having students think about a behavior before being in the situation to exhibit that behavior – greatly influences a student’s decision-making and therefore his or her response. A parent also nurtures developing behaviors by providing experiences and opportunities for children to practice those behaviors. Providing richer experiences can take many forms, such as creating play dates with other children, enrolling children in arts or sports activities, traveling as a family, or even assigning appropriate work chores around the home. Throughout our own development, we regularly – consciously or unconsciously – imitate some of the behaviors that we observe in others. Consequently an essential way for teachers (or parents) to nurture Life/Career abilities is to model the expected behaviors. The final element of nurturing is providing feedback, not in the form of a grade, but as constructive and consistent reminders when learners’ behaviors do not meet expectations.

Soft skills can be taught, but not in the traditional or stereotypical sense of teaching facts. Begin to use a nurturer mindset to evoke the parenting role in developing a child’s behavior. Using such an approach better defines teaching practices to develop students’ soft skills or Life/Career abilities.

A GPS for College and Career Readiness

GPSHiking a nature trail is a great experience for exercise and enjoyment. When hiking familiar trails, we know the route  and we can just enjoy the experience and not have to worry about getting lost or have need for a map. This comfortable experience of hiking can be compared to the conditions in many schools, where a culture of focusing on preparing students for the next grade level, hopefully moving on to college, is familiar territory for educators and we continue to exercise and enjoy the experience. However, when we introduce college AND career readiness to the equation, our comfortable hike takes on a very different experience and we uncomfortably find ourselves in uncharted territory. The area around us is different and we’re unsure of our destination. We are in desperate need of a map.

Finding our way in the world has become much easier and we have added a new term to our navigation vocabulary — GPS (Global Positioning System). Maps and compasses are old technology and today we have the added benefit of GPS. A GPS has the convenience of a well marked map, often in electronic form on a smart phone. But, it also has the exact positioning of where we are in relation to the trail, our environment and can automatically map out a route for us to find our destination. This convenient technology has made it much easier to find our way in a new neighborhood, or a new trail.

In schools, as we negotiate the new terrain of college AND career readiness, leaders often wish we had a similar GPS that would give us greater detail about the unfamiliar terrain, show us exactly where we are and automatically map our route to the destination. We are no where near a smartphone app that would give us a very clear indication of how to improve schools, but recently developed tools give us many of the elements of a GPS to map our way towards this important student goal of college and career readiness.

The Career Readiness Institute (CRI) hosted by the Successful Practices Network (SPN) has created a Career Readiness Self-Assessment. Building upon over a decade of cataloging the best practices in America’s most rapidly improving schools, SPN has developed a series of checklists which serve as the equivalent of a GPS to guide schools toward its destination of college and career readiness. This self-assessment includes a series of checklists which enable schools to more precisely identify where their school community is in relationship to this changing terrain. Since schools have a very comfortable experience in mapping their programs towards college readiness, these checklists primarily focus on career readiness. However, many aspects of school relate to both college and career readiness as partially overlapping goals and several checklists relate to both.

The checklists include school characteristics in three areas. First, Results encourages leadership teams to reflect on their overall student learning results and look beyond the minimum measures of state academic assessments. The checklists encourage schools to examine achievement in stretching students beyond the minimum and also including measures on student performances and developing Life/Career Abilities or “soft skills.” The second area of checklists focus on school Culture. Often the existing culture of the school either enables or hinders a school improvement or change initiative. Examining these current behaviors related to school culture gives leadership teams a more precise identification of aspects of culture that need to be changed over time. Finally, the third area of checklists focuses on Practices — those unique instructional planning, instruction and student support services that are necessary to develop career readiness.

The Career Readiness Self-Assessment is a powerful new resource to guide schools in their planning. You can learn more about the self-assessment by going to the Career Readiness Institute website or viewing this podcast overview .  School leaders and staff should not feel overwhelmed when hiking through new territory of college and career readiness.  There are tools and experience, equivalent of a GPS, that can guide us to this destination.

Education for Life Readiness: Measure What Matters

In the past, preparing students to graduate from high school and move on to college used to involve preparation in terms of a relatively small number of skills.   Students needed to be able to read and comprehend,cartoon measuring write cohesively and convincingly, and demonstrate a variety of analytical skills. In the past, these types of skills could be assessed effectively through standardized testing procedures. Twenty years ago, this constituted the basis—as well as the source data—for any sort of data-driven instruction decision making.

In today’s educational climate, preparing students to be college and career ready has “upped the ante.” Numerous 21st-century skills cannot be—and should not be—appropriately measured by means of archaic pencil-and-paper formats. Students’ abilities to demonstrate these kinds of skills are much more appropriately assessed through the use of authentic, project-based learning and performance-based assessments. If we expect our students to be successful both in college and careers, then we need to prepare them with the appropriate skills. Educators typically view this as meaning that we are teaching them the appropriate skills. However, we must also provide them with opportunities to demonstrate in diverse and various ways that they have mastered the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary in order to be successful.   In other words, we must assess them in a variety of ways, in order to gather multiple measures and indicators of what they are capable of doing. This will give us a much more accurate picture of how well we are preparing them to be successful.

It is vitally important for educators at all levels to invest time and energy when it comes to designing your assessment system that makes use of multiple measures. Please share your thoughts on using multiple measures for student progress, learning, and success. For more information and to read the entire chapter titled, Are You Measuring What Matters?  Another resource related to measuring student learning is the new white paper, Learning Criteria for College and Career Readiness.

Get to Know Your Students Using Data

Teaching has been, and always will be, a challenging profession. One of
the biggest challenges for many teachers is trying to find ways to connect and relate to the students that they see every day. As a teacher, one of the best ways to do this is to engage in a variety of strategies for getting to know your students better. When teachers engage in a process of truly getting toUncertain students. know their students, the benefits can be countless and the impact, far-reaching. Of course, simply gathering information on students is meaningful, but the true impact is felt when teachers take student information and integrate it into various aspects of their instruction.

This chapter of the Career Readiness Data Handbook discusses strategies and sources of student information that include demographics, interest surveys, instruments that measure career interests, and assessments of learning styles and multiple intelligences. Integrating this kind of student information into the instructional process can provide many benefits for teachers. Knowledge of student demographics and interests can provide teachers the opportunity to incorporate examples or assignments into coursework that tend to be more interesting to students, thus engaging them deeper in the instructional process. Knowledge of students’ career interests may give teachers the opportunity to extend knowledge, skills, and dispositions in ways that can demonstrate the value of what students may be learning in class, especially in terms of how it might apply to future careers. Finally, taking time to learn how each student learns best gives teachers opportunities to customize lessons and assignments, and also possibly group students for a collaborative work, based on similar learning styles.

We strongly urge you to invest some time in getting to know your students on a deeper level. Doing so will likely benefit both them and you. Please share your thoughts on using data for getting to know your students. For more information and to read the entire chapter titled How well do you really know your students?.

Four Teaching Initiatives for Career Readiness

Helping students achieve career readiness does not require a significant change in stFour-Pillar-Strategyandards nor a totally new curriculum. Several increasingly popular teaching practices contribute to student career readiness. Teaching in a career readiness culture focuses on facilitating learning rather than on dispensing knowledge. A career readiness culture seeks to prepare students to solve problems that they may have never encountered and that may have multiple possible “solutions”. Teaching roles shift from “giving lessons” to guiding and giving feedback. These four initiatives are:

  • Life/Career Abilities – Student dispositions that include personal, work habits and other “soft skills” are critically important to career readiness.
  • Project-based Learning – There is growing excitement about the high learner engagement value of project-based learning, which appears to be a very popular and effective strategy that contributes to career readiness.
  • Interdisciplinary – There is a direct connection between expanding interdisciplinary instruction and enhancing career readiness.
  • Personalizing Learning – The effort to reach high standards of achievement is not to standardize instruction, but to personalize instruction and to provide multiple pathways for students to achieve lofty learning goals as well as career readiness.

There are four key challenges that teachers often ask about in regard to enhancing career readiness in the classroom.

  • How is it possible to focus on these important Life/Career Abilities, while maintaining a focus on academic achievement?
  • How can instruction include projects that still support standards yet also avoid consuming precious instructional time?
  • What are the opportunities for using different forms of interdisciplinary instruction to enhance teaching and learning?
  • What are some effective the ways to personalize instruction?

Share your thoughts and ideas and join the Career Readiness Institute to learn and collaborate with other educators to enhance student Career Readiness.

You can learn more about these initiatives and resources to support your work at the Career Readiness Institute website:

Is Your Teaching BORING?

One of my favorite questions of high school students is to bored-studentsask them to describe their school in a single word. Describing the complexity of school in one word is challenging and students in great schools do use complimentary words just as caring, challenging, fun, or family.  But the most frequent word I hear is “boring.”  Try asking a group of teenagers about schools and see how many reply boring.  Part of this feeling reflects teenagers aspirations and desires.  But, there is some truth and reality in the negative connotation of school is boring.

Boring is a result of traditional teaching practices. My use of the term BORING  is really an acronym  for  instructional practices that do contribute to boring classrooms.  When teacher create boring, they:

Build lessons around learning large chunks of content knowledge with little context

Overlay curriculum pacing guide with expectation all students learn at same speed and do the same work

Reward students for good behavior and test on recall of facts

Isolate learning from developing interpersonal skills and collaboration

Narrow student thinking as passive accumulators of knowledge

Guide students to a single right answer

The cure for boring are these six practices, labeled BETTER.

Build connections with relevance

Engage students as independent learners

Test  and grade for proficiency

Target personal skills and work habits

Empower students with hope and confidence

Reward creativity and innovation in student work

Learning more about the BETTER Learning Model and how you can use teacher reflection surveys to improve your practice and move from BORING to BETTER.

From Second Chance to Success: Re-engaging Out of School Youth

Note: Youth Connection Charter School Campus principals Rita Pietrzak of Olive-Harvey Middle College and Mary Ann Soley of Harry S. Truman Middle College presented at the 2014 Model Schools Conference in Orlando. The following are their reflections. Here is link to case study to learn more about Youth Connection Charter School.

It was such a pleasure to present at the Model Schools Conference and to share ideas and concepts with other educators across the nation, which genuinely deepened our appreciation for the work we do. The Youth Connection Charter School [YCCS] Middle Colleges plan to continue strengthening internal partnerships with the City Colleges of Chicago for college Rita.Mary Ann. LaShaun. Omar 6.24.14readiness. We believe the development of a true career pathway in tandem with the City Colleges will amplify the post-secondary support already in place for our students.

Our first step to improving our YCCS Career Pathways Program, funded in part by the Mott Foundation, at the middle colleges will be to identify areas where students can take courses that will prepare them for a certification program or an Associate’s Degree through the City Colleges Continuing Education Department. We may find in this process that there is a need to better align our curricula, course offerings and prerequisite requirements to bridge the gap from high school into college level courses. For instance, Auto Technicians 101 currently requires students to test into credit bearing math courses, like Math 118, before being allowed to register for the course.  The City Colleges Office of Instruction will determine, in the near future, if students can take the entry-level courses and subsequently take the COMPASS; to determine if they are “college ready” for the 200 level courses within the Auto Tech, Transportation, or Cosmetology pathways.  This will especially support students who prefer to pursue a trade instead of a four-year degree.

Because YCCS students were either off-track or were out of school before enrolling at YCCS, it is our goal to accelerate their learning by increasing skills mastery along with postsecondary opportunities within the high school curriculum. The Middle Colleges have experienced a significant level of success to this end; which is partially due to the integral partnership we have with Chicago City Colleges: our locations within City College campuses and the developing curricular articulation creating high school to college and career certifications and pathways.

The Twelve Data Questions for Preparing Students for Career Readiness?

Question MarksIf your school is committed to making students career ready, there are twelve data questions that teachers and administrators need to be prepared to answer. Most decisions about measures of career readiness are best defined at the district or school level rather than state level. Simple state accountability measures grossly overlook  many of the nuances of student career readiness, the personalization that needs to take place and the process of instructional improvement. The Career Readiness Institute is developing a data handbook for career readiness to assist teachers and administrators to answer these questions. This handbook takes a unique approach to presenting recommendations for the use of data in schools and poses twelve questions related to improving student learning and career readiness.

While still in draft form, interested educators are invited to share their thought and ideas in making this data handbook a useful resource. Over the next several weeks, a separate blog posting will be prepared for each of the twelve data questions to facilitate multiple discussions. Educators are encouraged to give reactions, share suggestions and post new questions around each of these data topics.

Each chapter offers recommendations for collecting and using appropriate data to answer one of these questions:

  1. How well do you really know your students?
  2. Are you measuring what matters?
  3. How can you tell what your students aren’t learning and what do you do when you know that?
  4. Once you know who’s not learning, how can you help individual students?
  5. How do you “grade” student work on performance assessments?
  6. How can you teach students who read at very different grade levels?
  7. Are you preparing students for future viable careers?
  8. How do you know if instructional changes are making a difference in student learning?
  9. What are your students’ perceptions about school?
  10. Does your instruction help make students career ready?
  11. Are your students successful in career and technical education?
  12. How do you know your students are career ready?

To start the discussion, reply below – Are there questions missing?  Which questions do educators need ideas and resources to be able to answer? What resources are available to help answer these questions?

We hope you will find this a thought-provoking and interesting journey of sharing ideas on this important topic related to career readiness.