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Op-Ed: Instilling ‘Soft Skills’ Serves Kids Better Than Memorizing Hard Facts

Ability to 'think outside the box' will prove more crucial to success in the future

fletcher and fishbein
Patrick J. Fletcher and Dr. Daniel Fishbein

Like it or not, things change ... constantly. It's as much a reality in public education as it is anywhere else.

So, while so much attention is being paid to PARCC testing, it's crucial that anyone interested in the future of our young people and nation realizes that what and how we teach -- as well as what and how students learn -- are evolving rapidly.

As an example of the challenges we face, consider that a youngster entering kindergarten this September will retire around the year 2075. Looking backward 60 years, cell phones and personal computers weren't even a glint on the horizon, so the obvious question is whether we can possibly know what a student will need to know during the coming six decades.

The obvious answer is that we can't. But we can provide training in "soft skills," those somewhat intangible abilities that are increasingly being emphasized in our classrooms and that enable individuals to think "outside the box," grasp multiple points of view, solve problems, delegate, and work with others toward common goals. While technical content and abilities are easier to define and measure, soft skills such as attitude, work ethic, communication capabilities, and emotional intelligence are essential for individual success.

In 2015, there's significantly increased educational focus on the nature of information gathering -- think Dewey Decimal-based searches in 1990, versus Google searches today -- which highlights why the skills and attitudes we teach must evolve regularly to enable students to flourish at school and in the world at-large.

If you find the Dewey Decimal–Google comparison eye-opening, consider that before 1900, total accumulated human knowledge -- that is, all information known to mankind -- doubled roughly every century. By the end of World War II, this rate of doubling had increased to once every quarter-century. But today, estimates indicate that our total accumulated knowledge doubles every 13 months -- meaning that in just five years, there will be about 30 times more total human knowledge than there is today.

Pause a moment to digest all of that ... then consider the staggering volume of information that youngster who's starting kindergarten this September will need to adapt to in the next 60 years or so. Obviously, a wide variety of creative educational strategies is needed to keep students moving in the right direction.

The one soft skill teachers want students to master more than any other is the ability to persist when confronted with a challenging situation. An enthusiasm for getting started promptly and working methodically through a difficult task is invaluable today and will continue to be in the future, as we all face an increasingly complex barrage of new technologies and experiences.

As poet Maya Angelou put it, "You can tell a lot about a person by the way he handles ... tangled Christmas tree lights."

Also crucial for today's learners are the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), a list of soft-skill capabilities concerned with what effective mathematicians actually "do" -- with an emphasis on reasoning, perseverance, identifying resources, developing a plan of attack, and being precise. All of this is outside the realms of calculus, geometry, algebra, or other specific disciplines, but it's crucial to real-world success for those who work with numbers.

Further, SMP principles are applicable to other areas of study. Without a doubt, reasoning, precision, and perseverance -- among other proficiencies -- are essential to success in fields related to English, social studies, science, and the arts.

Another question local schools must ponder is how soft-skills development will impact standardized testing -- and whether these skills can ultimately serve as a complement.

Our classrooms are also seeing an increase in the use of play, gaming, and simulations as instructional components. These are excellent tools for teaching students about teamwork, negotiation, compromise, and planning. Author Michael Schrage's book "Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate" has examined this phenomenon on a corporate level, while Ridgewood Public School District Superintendent Daniel Fishbein, Ed.D., wrote on the subject in his recent article "How Does a Student Become a Good Citizen."

As educators, we respect our vocation's traditions -- but it's essential to realize that today's unprecedented information access means updating our daily practices and focus.

For example, look at the time-honored emphasis on memorization. It was a core facet of education for generations of America's students, but being a potentially great “Jeopardy” player is no guarantee of success in the game of life. Our students need abilities tailored to modern demands, and we need to adjust how we teach and what we teach accordingly.

As Sir Ken Robinson has said in writing about education, "The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility."

Evolutionary educational changes will be adopted at different rates by different school districts. But given our awareness of the possibilities inherent in soft skills, the SMP, and the incorporation of play, games, and simulations into classrooms, we're all moving toward creation of priceless new learning experiences that benefit all our students -- now and into the future.

Patrick J. Fletcher is superintendent of the River Dell Regional School District. Dr. Daniel Fishbein is superintendent of the Ridgewood Public Schools. Both are board members of the Bergen County Association of School Administrators.

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