Reflection: Integrating soft skills into the classroom

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Reflections Photo: L.. Schmidt

Dumant and Istance, as cited in Merriam and Bierema (2014) stated: ““21st century competencies” include “deep understanding, flexibility and the capacity to make creative connections” and “a range of so-called ‘soft skills’ including good team working. The quantity and quality of learning thus becomes central, with the accompanying concern that traditional educational approaches are insufficient”” (p 4).

When I think of traditional educational approaches, the images that come to my mind are those of blackboards, chalk dust and rows of students sitting quietly (asleep) in desks while the teacher drones on and on.

While the portrayal of the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon is obviously satirical it certainly begs us to question what is the purpose of education? Implied in the quote above is the understanding that one purpose of education is for individuals to learn the skills that will enable them to function effectively in the workplace. Traditional approaches that focused on skills acquisition and rote knowledge – like the 3 r’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – worked in a time where access to information was limited, social structure was clearly delineated and change happened slowly. The 21st century workplace environment demands that people from all social levels and ages are able to adapt to rapidly evolving technologies in addition to the far-reaching effects of globalization. As an instructor, I need to be able to move beyond traditional educational approaches so that I can foster in students the development of the competencies required in the 21st century.

Soft skills are in demand. In a 2015 report issued by Workopolis, a lack of soft skills was identified in 29% of potential candidates. (Thinkopolis VIII: The most sought after skills in Canada in 2015, n.d.)

While the development of soft skills can be nurtured and supported by our families of origin, as highlighted by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth Info Brief, Helping Youth Develop Soft Skills for Job Success: Tips for Parents and Families (2011) which offers tips such as playing games as a family, role playing, providing a wide range of social, cultural and intellectual opportunities and having children help out elderly neighbours, the need to provide students with more sophisticated competencies is also being observed at both the secondary and tertiary levels.

Jenkins (2015) states that the “. . . new three R’s of education are Resourcefulness, Responsibility, and Respect” (para 1) and maintains that these are the most important skills that students need to learn today. California Community Colleges in their 2006 document, Teach SOFT SKILLS, takes it deeper and lists 16 different characteristics that can encompass ‘soft skills’ including “. . . communication, cooperation, social awareness, self-confidence, self-control and a growth mindset” (p 1) and recommends including all of the following into the curriculum (p 2,3):

  • Inspiring curiosity;
  • Cultivating grit;
  • Encouraging optimism;
  • Teaching self-control;
  • Fostering professionalism;
  • Providing real work experience;
  • Fostering a growth mindset
  • Rewarding effort;
  • Evaluating what students can do at the end of the course;
  • Developing students’ sense of purpose;
  • Teaching teamwork.

Brigg’s (2015) 30 Tips to Cultivate Soft Skills in Your Students parallels many of the key recommendations outlined above and underscores the importance collaborative work: “It’s extremely important, then, for teachers to create learning environments where students get to brainstorm, thinking imaginatively, and research big questions on a regular basis, in the company of others” (para 20).

While there are a plethora of articles recommending ways to cultivate soft skills into the classroom there is a paucity of information as to how to measure the effectiveness of implementing a specific soft skills approach into a school based curriculum. The only article I could find was by the RAND Corporation (2014) and it was a “Plan for Measuring Hard-to-Measure, ‘Soft’ Skills”; I was, however, unable to find any evidence that anyone has taken them up on the offer to take on doing the research. Without a tangible way to measure outcomes, I run the risk as an educator of believing that I am fostering these skills in students only to find that I am not.

In my role as a perinatal nurse educator I have the opportunity to teach in a variety of educational milieus including online with graduate nurses taking a post RN specialty, face to face workshops with a variety of health care professionals and informal learning opportunities in the acute care setting. Given the relative intangibility of what exactly defines soft skills and how best to apply the concepts into the classroom I believe that it is important for me to use evidenced based approaches and methodologies that promote learning and foster the development of some of the traits now identified as soft skills.

One of these concepts is self-regulation. “ . . . (S)elf-regulated students are those students who are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active in their own learning processes and in achieving their own goals “(TEAL Center Fact Sheet No. 3: Self-Regulated Learning, 2012, para 5).

Self-regulation includes (TEAL Center Fact Sheet No. 3: Self-Regulated Learning, 2012, para 7):

  • Cognitive strategies that promote learning like critical thinking and problem solving;
  • Metacognitive skills that include self-reflection;
  • Motivational strategies like goal setting and monitoring.

I believe that by helping students to become self-regulated I can develop some of the traits that are seen as desirable by employers such as persistence, responsibility, critical thinking, problem solving and self-regulation.

One of the workshops I facilitate is a Neonatal Resuscitation Course. It is a 6 hour workshop that focuses on developing the skills required to resuscitate a newborn. Let’s see how well this course applies the recommendations from the Teach SOFT SKILLS (2006) as listed above in addition to the principles of self-regulation.

  • At the start of the workshop, the intent for the course and learning outcomes are reviewed (developing students’ sense of purpose );
  • Etiquette for the day is discussed and agreed upon (fostering professionalism);
  • Students break off into teams of 2 -3 (teamwork);
  • Skills are reviewed and practiced using low fidelity mannequins and real supplies (providing real work experience);
  • Students identify what they know and what they want to learn about each skill (metacognitive skill);
  • Skills are then practiced and instructor feedback is provided for each students and for each skill (rewarding effort );
  • There is a final testing of all the required skills at completion of the skill stations (evaluating what students can do at the end of the course);
  • There is a final group simulation where students are provided with a challenging scenario that they are required to work through together as a group (teamwork, real work experience, evaluating what students can do at the end of the course)
  • Students then gather and debrief the scenario (self-regulation skill).

Students are also expected to plan, monitor and evaluate themselves as they work through the skills stations, the final test and the group simulation (self-regulation). I have learned that the more I let the students explore and learn on their own the better the learning (inspiring curiosity).

There are also times when I have new learners taking the course. This course requires some very complex problem solving and critical thinking skills. While I try to provide scenarios appropriate for the level of the learner, sometimes even the ‘basics’ can seem confusing. The power of yet/ the growth mindset (Dweck, 2015) is a great thing to use. It is such a powerful tool when used correctly. Having the student focus on what they can learn next to get them closer to their goal is quite helpful.

Last month I ran the workshop and had 2 students that were struggling with some of the flow of the resuscitation algorithm. Unfortunately, they were working together and I did not identify the issues until we came to the testing part. While we were able to sort out the issues and the students were able to pass the course, I realize that one of the weaknesses of having the same team member work together all day was that they may be ‘leading each other down the garden path’. For my next workshop I will have the groups switch up through out the day so that the peer learning can be expanded and not concentrated.

Soft skills are considered a 21st century competency by employers and although there are a wide range of tips based on opinion on how to incorporate this into the curriculum and just as many definitions of what a soft skill is there isn’t any research to guide how to implement them. I feel that the recommendations offered by the California Community Colleges could work in nicely with the strategies that are used to develop self-regulated learners and have provided me with some direction on how to begin integrating soft skills into the curriculums of the programs that I facilitate.

References

Briggs, S. (2015) 30 Tips to Cultivate Soft Skills in Your Students InformED. Retrieved from: http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/30-ways-to-cultivate-soft-skills-in-your-students/

Dweck, C., (2015) Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’ Education Week. Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html

Hamilton, S. & Stecher, B., (2014) Plan for Measuring Hard-to-Measure, ‘Soft’ Skills The RAND Blog. Retrieved from: http://www.rand.org/blog/2014/12/a-plan-for-measuring-hard-to-measure-soft-skills.html

Info Brief: Helping Youth Develop Soft Skills for Job Success: Tips for Parents and Families (2011) National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. Retrieved from: http://www.ncwd-youth.info/information-brief-34

Jenkins, J. (2015) The New Three R’s of Education: Resourcefulness, Responsibility, and Respect edutopia Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/new-three-rs-education-resourcefulness-responsibility-and-respect

Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Teach SOFT SKILLS to Increase Student Success Strategies to Enhance Students’ 21st Century Competencies (2006) California Community College. Retrieved from: http://www.cccspecialpopulations.org/Publications/SoftSkillstoIncreaseStudentSuccess.pdf

TEAL Center Fact Sheet No. 3: Self-Regulated Learning (2012) LINCS Literacy Information and Communication System. Retrieved from: https://lincs.ed.gov/programs/teal/guide/selfregulated

Thinkopolis VIII: The most sought after skills in Canada in 2015 (n.d.) Workopolis Retrieved from: http://works.workopolis.com/research/2015/skills/Thinkopolis%20VIII%20-The%20most%20sought%20after%20skills%20in%20Canada%20in%202015.pdf

Weimer, M. (2010) What it Means to be a Self-Regulated Learner Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Practices from Magna Publications. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/what-it-means-to-be-a-self-regulated-learner/

Zimmerman, B..J. (1990) Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Success: An Overview Educational Psychologist, 24(1), 3-17 Lawrence Erbaum Associates, Inc. Retrieved from http://itari.in/categories/ability_to_learn/self_regulated_learnin_g_and_academic_achievement_m.pdf 

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