Soft on Content?

On February second, The Partnership for Change hosted a community learning conversation asking “What do our Graduates Need to Succeed?” at Burlington High School. We invited a number of panelists from government, business, higher education, and local non-profits to respond to this question. Additional questions from over 350 assembled community members were also asked, all with the goal of informing the ongoing conversations within the Burlington and Winooski school districts regarding graduate proficiencies. Following the interactive panel discussion, community members participated in small group conversations where they were asked to choose, from a prepared list of 19 Graduate Expectations, which of these skills and dispositions each participant felt were most important for our graduates to be proficient in. The list was compiled from data collected at over 35 small, neighborhood learning conversations with community members during the month leading up to the February second event. Teachers, students, parents, business owners, and area service providers all contributed to the list in an effort to gain insight into what locals think translates into “successful adulthood.” While these 19 items are not exhaustive of the hundreds of hours of conversations hosted on this topic, they are an attempt to capture the essence and spirit of the community’s most articulated concerns.

The List


A quick glance at the 19 proposed Graduate Expectations left many of our participants feeling that we might be throwing our content out with the bathwater. “Where,” they asked, “are the math and science courses needed to succeed in the flattened, global economy?” It’s an important, valid question, but we need to be wary of setting up the false dichotomy that an increase in attention to one area of education means the wholesale exclusion of another. To be fair, there is only so much time in the day, and only so many things we can cover during that time. If we place added emphasis on so-called “soft skills” like collaboration and cultural awareness, that necessitates fewer learning opportunities in the sciences and maths, right? And reading and writing? Those would suffer too, right? Here lies the very conundrum that force us to ask our initial question: What do our graduates need to succeed? More math instruction? More science labs? More expository writing? Or more “soft skills?” Following the national debate here, like most topics, doesn’t help all that much. Do we study more, like the Chinese and the South Koreans, or do we study less, like the Finnish? And once we identify those things promoting “success,” assuming we can, how do we best impart them in our students? Choose your position and pick your pundit later. You’ll be sure to find support somewhere among the talking heads.

One knee-jerk reaction to the question of our graduates’ needs is that we need better teaching. Or better teachers. Or just teachers who knew their content. Or teachers who were held more accountable. As a veteran classroom teacher I won’t argue against the need for better teaching, just as I wouldn’t argue against the need for better mechanics, doctors, or elected officials. We should all strive for betterment, no matter our craft. But teaching, especially content teaching, exists within a much larger system, and that system, of which I’m a part, has left many students damaged as learners before they ever set foot in the classrooms. We are just now, finally, beginning to pay attention.

Numbers, Letters, and Culture

No one argues against the need for a baseline of numeracy, literacy, and cultural competency in our education system. There may be plenty of arguing about the breadth, depth, and form that these take, but we have general agreement that students should be able to decode, analyze, and synthesize words and numbers. They should understand the cultural contexts and systems in which we live, so they can participate in them and work toward their continual improvement. In working with students, however, one can’t fail to notice the enormous discrepancy between various students’ abilities to do so. No classroom moves along at the same pace with students falling lockstep under the spell of a single instructor or instructional method. Any teacher will tell you, some students seem to “get it,” while others require extra help and remediation, and even with additional instruction they might not achieve the same understanding as their peers for whom it just “clicked.” I have taught back to back lessons in classes of students tracked into the same “ability level” where one class engages in graduate level conversation while the next might as well have been listening to my dog lecture for all they seemed to gain from our “dialogue.” Same lesson, two different outcomes. Is it the teaching?

Or is it the Learning?

Recently, there have been some dramatic breakthroughs in research surrounding student learning, and it’s not all brain scans and bootstraps. John Hattie, Carol Dweck, and Paul Tough are three individuals whose work sheds light on what holds some students back and propels others forward. And in study after study, chanting “Math, math, math” from the sidelines has not once helped a district achieve Adequate Yearly Progress.

What works?

In 2008, Australian scholar John Hattie published Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, where he analyzed mountains of education research in an effort to isolate the most important factors in determining a student’s ability to achieve and thrive. The item he found had the greatest determinant effect on a student’s ability to achieve? Not IQ. Not birth order. Not even socio-economic status (that was 39th on his list). The most important factor in student achievement was student self-assessment, directly tied to the notion of self-concept. How a student sees oneself as a learner has a direct correlation to how much they learn in any given situation. Far too often, students enter the classroom with a negative self-concept – low self esteem – effectively shutting themselves off from the teaching going on around them, regardless of its quality. If we can teach students to be better evaluators of their own work, it can have a dramatic increase on the quality of their work, making them better students, and perhaps more importantly, better equipped to make decisions in all aspects of their lives.

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets complements and reinforces Hattie’s work. Simply put, a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is more or less “fixed” at birth. It reinforces traditional hierarchies on every level, allowing those who are both “good” and “bad” at school to believe that they are destined to be so. Some people, the thinking goes, are preordained to be smart; some people, not so smart. Just as my own struggles in math allowed me to conclude that I was “not good at math,” freeing me from the need to work hard, a student’s struggles with school might lead one to believe that no amount of hard work would ever pay off, so why bother? It’s much easier to coast through school with D’s rather than work hard if I think that’s going to provide little or no payoff. A growth mindset, on the other hand, acknowledges the realities of what we know about neuroplasticity, or the mind’s ability to adapt and grow. Those of us who embrace a growth mindset understand that hard work and determination will always lead to better understanding. We are not born with a predetermined set of mental chips that we cash in as we move through the school system, but an adaptable organ with an enormous capacity to develop talent and knowledge. In life, it’s those with a growth mindset that continue to evolve, not just in school, but afterwards as well.

Pushing this work into the hands of armchair academics and David Brooks’s column, Paul Tough’s recent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is perhaps this past year’s most talked about resource on the importance of character education. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Annie Murphy Hall writes that Tough advocates “the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.” In his book, Tough outlines compelling cases for poor character development at both ends of America’s socio-economic spectrum due to the drastically different, and counterproductive, experiences we have with failure. For the rich, the safety net is too broad, for the poor, there’s often no net. Children end up experiencing failure, necessary to proper social conditioning, in such a way that they’re either too protected from it or so unsupported in the face of its fallout that they end up learning nothing from it. Tough’s message is clear: in cultivating grit, or perseverance, through authentic, supported failure, we equip our children with the most crucial element for earned success.

Toward a True Understanding

For these reasons the Partnership advocates for a whole child education, soft skills and all. There are many who feel that it’s not the schools’ job to impart these qualities in their students. Schools should provide knowledge, not manners or empathy. The problem with this argument is that without the so-called soft skills, students are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to learning. Self-confidence isn’t only important to a child so that they feel good walking down the hall, but because without a healthy opinion of one’s self and one’s abilities a child won’t learn. Yes, schools need to teach science, and math, and literature, and geography, and history, but we also need to start paying careful attention to what enables students to retain their learning, real learning marked by understanding. And when our students lack the necessary mindset to engage in their own learning, all the Kahn Academy videos and extra worksheets in the world aren’t going to get them to understand geometry.

If we are serious about addressing the achievement gap in this country, then we need to start with the perception gap. Because the answer is more math, and more reading, and more writing. But it’s not necessarily the teaching of these things we should be concerned with, it’s the learning.

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