A recent national survey ranked communication top on the list of skills needed for students to succeed in today’s world, followed by reading, math and then teamwork, and Arizona education leaders aren’t surprised.
In fact, they have been developing and enhancing classroom strategies for building these skills in students over the past five years, and say the state math and language arts standards that have been in place since 2010 reinforce the need to do so.
“These skills are important factors in student success in the workplace, college and life,” said Sara Martinez Crawford, technology project director at AZ K12 Center.
“For example, companies such as Intel, informed participants that they do not assess content knowledge of interviewees until they have determined that the candidate will fit into the culture of the company,” Crawford said.
In the past five years, Arizona teachers have increased the time K-12 students spend developing these soft skills as well as professionalism, intergenerational and cross-cultural competence and legal, ethical and financial best practices.
The Pew Research Center survey of randomly selected adults which was released earlier this month showed communication and collaboration ranking above science, athletic, music and art skills.
“The premise that soft skills are more important than even the technical and general education backgrounds of workers has been confirmed by not only multiple research projects, but also the daily experiences of teachers, counselors and job placement professionals working with youth and others who are entering the workforce for the first time,” writes Lee Bruno in the American Institutes for Research.
Why are soft skills so important?
Student and future employees need more than technical skills, they must also communicate, collaborate, innovate, get along with fellow workers, make critical decisions, show initiative and support the organization’s culture and goals.
One program that helps bridge the gap between the classroom and workplace is Arizona K12 Center’s Lesson2Life program that teachers can take part in for three days during the summer.
“Educators have the opportunity to tour (business) facilities, participate in group activities, hear from business leaders and engage in dialogues about education and career readiness skills,” Crawford said.
The program also lets business leaders learn about teachers’ classroom needs and ways they can enrich students’ learning and activities.
“Participants have a clearer vision of what skills businesses seek from individuals and they are able to relay these messages to their students,” Crawford said. “Students are more receptive to first-hand accounts of how skills apply to real life”
Lesson2Life is a professional development partnership between the Arizona K12 Center at Northern Arizona University, and Arizona’s local businesses, chambers of commerce and Arizona Public Service. APS has been a long-time supporter and partner of the program.
Teachers who attend the program say it has an impact on them personally and on what they do in their classrooms, Crawford said.
“Educators are also able to intertwine these skills into lessons, during class projects and daily interactions with their students,” Crawford said.
For example, requiring students to use proper spelling and grammar means they’ll learn to seek out resources to reach a goal, and responding only to appropriately written student emails shows students there are consequences to the way students present themselves, writes Tami Strang, in Cengage Learning’s Engaging Minds: Resource and Insights.
Nationwide, many low-income students may not have experienced classroom activities that help them develop these soft skills, such as giving presentations, working on group projects or doing writing assignments, according to a March 18, 2015, Brookings Institution blog by Joanna Venator and Richard V. Reeves.
Their analysis of classroom activities data from the 2010 Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that while giving presentations was ranked the best way to strengthen communication skills, more than a third of students rarely or never had to give a presentation.
Less than 10 percent of low income students rarely or never were given a writing assignment, according to the Brooking Institution analysis.
Twenty-seven percent, or twice as many low-income students as higher-income students, rarely or never worked in small groups.
Yet there are many ways teachers and parents can help children build the soft skills through modeling these skills, using puzzle stories to encourage cooperative problem -olving, and directing students in conflict management so they understand how compromise and negotiation help solve issues, writes Aricia LaFrance in National Career Development Association’s Career Convergence magazine.
Helping students develop their soft skills is something teachers can do every day with students in classrooms, clubs and sports by giving them authentic choices on how they’re going to be assessed and providing an environment where trust, initiative and taking risks is encouraged, writes Sandy Merz, who has taught algebra and engineering among other courses in Safford and Tucson Unified districts for over 27 years.
By engaging, challenging and supporting students as well as modeling perseverance, teachers can help students understand how meeting class expectations will help them throughout their life, said Merz, who is also a professional consultant with the Center for Teaching Quality.
Video: Arizona K12 Center’s Lesson2Life: Bring real world relevance to your class