Is hard data for soft skills needed?

Local and national curricula, as well as private curricula and school groups, aim to educate and prepare young people for the future. Regardless of individual context and even political or economic influence, social and personal/emotional goals are defined as measures of success on top of purely academic ones. Research has established the importance of soft skills in fostering student academic achievement and long-term success. 

Social and personal/emotional goals are interpersonal or intrapersonal competencies such as the ability to work in a team, take responsibility for the completion of a task and communicate effectively. Such capacities can be referred to as soft skills, emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning or skills, personal qualities, character, virtue, non-cognitive skills, 21st-century skills and more. Despite debate over the optimal name for this broad category of personal qualities, leading researcher in the field Angela Duckworth agrees specific attributes are worth measuring, and her work to help us understand the importance of effort, motivation and sustained commitment is changing our classrooms.

As someone who regularly chooses a spreadsheet as a thinking tool, I sometimes catch myself thinking that the more information we have about learning, the better off we are. But even with the best number crunchers on our teams and stunning data visualization resources available, important choices need to be made to ensure we know our students well yet still have the time to use this information to meet their needs. Statistically speaking, it could be that 20% of your data is providing you with 80% of what you need (Pareto Principle) – and that’s enough.

The Pareto Principle

In 2019, McKinsey researchers identified a set of 56 foundational skills which associated a higher likelihood of employment, higher incomes, and job satisfaction in those with higher proficiency in them. They refer to these as ‘distinct elements of talent’ (DELTAs), rather than ‘skills’, because these are seen as a mix of skills and attitudes. Their recent large-scale study results suggest a strong curricula focus on these soft skills may be appropriate given the weak correlation between proficiency and higher levels of education.

Groups or even individual schools need to define the soft skills that determine an inclusive and balanced view of student success. Given the challenge of even naming these, we can start by reviewing and perhaps choosing a researched-based assessment tool and working backward from there. This helps us to establish clear goals and benchmarks for universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring and to design and implement evidence-based curricula and instruction. Consideration of the role of teachers’ levels of social-emotional competence can also be a part of this process.

Soft skills are vitally important outcomes as part of relevant and balanced education. Discriminating decisions need to be made so that the learning information we have is also relevant to particular stakeholders and balanced. Who determines what data is collected in your school? Is the data used to support decision-making? Perhaps the Pareto Principle and the Learning Data Pyramid can help you here, too. 

Further reading and resource suggestions follow

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