Can K-12 cater to soft skills, too?

Originally posted in the Phoenix Business Journal. June 15, 2017

The recent cover story “Catering to Soft Skills” highlights how our state colleges and universities have adapted programs to better support students for today’s workforce.  Quote after quote underscores how employers demand more than just baseline academic and technical skills, but are seeking student leaders with skills in communication, adaptability, critical thinking, problem-solving, and the ability to work in diverse teams. Kudos to our colleges and universities for responding. You are better preparing students with experiential learning, projects requiring team work, and thinking outside the box in how curriculum is accessed and learning is facilitated.

Although the article did not intend to encompass our full education system in this challenge, we fall short of fully filling the soft skills deficit if we don’t address the learning experiences prior to entering our colleges and universities.  The opportunity to prepare the next generation of workers for the demand of today’s workforce must start with K-12.  If you look at the state of affairs for K-12 learning in this context, you might be either depressed or inspired, depending on where you look.

Considering the persistent public conversation about K-12 education, it boils down to two main issues: funding and test scores.  More recently, however, we’ve steered into a conversation about the teacher shortage; although it quickly goes back to teacher pay (funding) and teacher quality (often measured in test scores).

The system is just set up this way. The state’s school accountability system is primarily based on performance from a singular standardized assessment. Therefore, quality ratings for a school and our overall K-12 system is based almost entirely on how students perform on a standard set of academic skills in one week during the year, which does not test for the “soft skills” very well. 

Where is the discussion about rich hands-on experiences, connection to real world challenges, exploration of career pathways, and touching stories of how student-led, diverse teams are working together to solve challenges?  To be fair, these things are happening, but not nearly enough and certainly not recognized and celebrated to the degree they deserve.

It’s happening at Western School of Science and Technology in Maryvale, where students engage in social impact entrepreneurship and engineering projects and at Phoenix Union High School District, which is providing hands-on experiential learning and soft skill development in its Camelback Montessori program and newly launched Coding Academy.  

At Acton Academy Phoenix students as young as 5 years old direct their own learning and engage in project based quests in topics, such as entrepreneurship, chess, entomology and marine biology. Outside of the classroom, Phoenix has hosted the Arizona Children’s Business Fair, an experience for kids aged 8 to 14 to run a real business with real money for a day.

Let’s take a lesson from our colleges and universities who have responded to one of the greatest benefactors of a well-educated population, our state’s employers. With continued innovation and creative learning designs, we can further develop a portfolio of experiences that not only prepare student to graduate, but prepare them to thrive in a dynamic and complex world of work.

Andrew Collins is President and CEO of New Learning Ventures, a nonprofit that supports visionary educators who are rethinking learning and fostering innovation to positively impact the educational and economic future of Arizona.  Follow Andrew on twitter @CollinsAndrewD and New Learning Ventures @NLV_AZ.