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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
New and essential soft skills? Start here
Understanding schools and adaptability
By Lisa Gonzales and Devin Vodicka | March | April 2021
The global pandemic that we are in right now has elevated the urgency for schools and educational systems to be more adaptable and flexible. In many ways, this may be a good rehearsal for an era of even faster change on the horizon. For years, we have been hearing about the rise of automation and how it will have disruptive effects on the workforce, the economy and society as a whole.
Now, during COVID-19, we are seeing what economists call a “k-shape” recovery where previous inequalities are exacerbated by the current crisis. As a whole, information and knowledge workers are doing quite well while entire sectors (such as hospitality) have experienced massive declines and high unemployment rates. COVID-19 has affected us all, but the pandemic has had an uneven impact. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will have a similar widespread and uneven impact.
Virtually any task that is repeatable will be done by AI. For example, voice recognition software such as Siri, Alexa and OK Google is improving so rapidly that drive-through orders will soon all be done through bots. Even more complex tasks, such as medical coding or the act of reviewing documents and tagging them for insurance reimbursement, are swiftly done better by bots than by humans. Due to continued advancements, the costs of digital processing continue to decline and we can expect that the economics will tip in favor of outsourcing more and more of these human tasks to technology-based solutions.

Schools and adaptability

As a result of these changes, the world of work will increasingly require humans to do those things that are uniquely human. As the world continues to change rapidly, the workforce will also continue to adapt, and we are just now at the beginning stages of a “gig economy” where we will need to demonstrate our value through project-based contributions. In this context of whitewater change, we will need to be lifelong learners.
This will require schools to continue evolving beyond the industrial-age, factory model, which was primarily oriented to standardization, compliance and knowledge acquisition. In order to thrive as lifelong learners, we need to embrace models that build knowledge, habits and skills. This must become the new purpose of our educational ecosystem and it will require many changes, including the ways in which we think about whole-child competencies and portable learner records. Instead of standardized tests and GPAs, we need to be thinking about data backpacks that translate into digital briefcases for the future.
So what should go into these post-pandemic, new world, technologically informed backpacks and briefcases?
Let’s start with the soft skills
Broadly defined as the capacity and ability of an individual to adapt to changing circumstances, soft skills encompass emotionally based, non-curricular skills that are not generally measurable. And while they can be taught, soft skills are more nebulous than hard skills: those specific qualities and skills that can be clearly defined, measured and taught for success in a job. Soft skills are important because they enable students to adjust to the frustrations and challenges they will encounter in their adult life, as well as to the demands of work. Mastering soft skills help students learn, live and work better.
When it comes to key soft skills — things like small talk, empathy and courtesy — their application is not as straightforward. That doesn’t mean soft skills aren’t worth investing in, teaching and practicing. Students (and arguably adults) need hard skills to land a job, but need soft skills to progress in college and career. We’ve rounded up a list of the 10 soft skills most critical to nurturing successful, well-rounded students, and how educators can help.
Communication. With the fast-tracked nature of technology, and a reliance on text messaging, TikTok videos and Zoom classes, much of current day communication has evolved beyond face-to-face. Regardless of the medium, strong skills in the exchange of information are still a must. Acquiring effective communication skills means better relationship-building practices, less stress and heightened productivity. Having good communication is the only way students can work together to produce effective solutions to the problems and challenges we face. And the same applies in the workplace.
Critical Thinking. Those seeking success in a quickly evolving world need the ability to think critically. This comes down to thinking productively, responsibly and independently. The way young people view things and act influences everything that surrounds them. But critical thinking has been part of numerous cultural philosophies for many decades. Yes, it plays a big role in defining the entire world, everyone and the future. Hence, the way they think about each other, themselves and the world affects more than just personal experience.
Emotional Intelligence. Often referred to as the ability to manage and understand one’s emotions and those of others, this skill is multi-dimensional. Emotional intelligence includes self-regulation, self-awareness, empathy, motivation and social skill. Students with higher levels of emotional intelligence are able to better manage themselves and relate to others around them. This can help them develop improved self-motivation and more effective communication, essential skills that help students become more confident learners.
We love the idea that we should shift away from asking students what career they want to have, instead asking a more enduring question: What problems do you want to solve?”
Flexibility. Being adaptable and flexible are skills that students have had to come to terms with over the last year, and certainly one that college recruiters and employers keep an eye out for. Strength in flexibility highlights working well under pressure, an open mindset, prioritizing tasks, taking on additional responsibilities and adjusting to new and changing deadlines and constraints. In many respects, response to the pandemic has been a practice in the life skill of flexibility.
Information Management. More than three quintillion bytes of data are uploaded online every day, according to Google, and the estimates are that that number will continue to increase. Information is so important and it makes the online world more relevant, as information can be obtained by fewer finger taps and swipes. Acquiring information management skills helps students handle information, from being able to discern a reliable source to discarding the spurious. When mastering information management accordingly, conducting and sourcing proper research is an invaluable work and life skill.
Leadership. One of the most effective soft skills, building leadership can help change the lives of students. It is about identifying untapped potential in people and showing them how they can utilize it to their own advantage. A leader empowers, motivates and inspires, moving from the skill set of getting things done to taking on responsibility for making positive things happen.
Openness to Feedback. Think about it. Honest, constructive feedback can help students be more effective in the classroom, on the athletic field, in clubs and in community service. While this is a component of emotional intelligence, this life skill is especially important in college and career. Being open and able to give and receive feedback is critical to success. For young people, asking for feedback and working to hone the skill will make it easier to give and take.
Teamwork. Working with others includes leadership values, empathy and strong communication. Fluency in teamwork is crucial to master because it makes working with someone across the world as easy as someone across the room or on Zoom. Not only is it a required skill for college survival, but the corporate world relies on it in daily practice. In short, teamwork and the related collaboration is most critical, especially in the digital age.
Tech Savvy. The digital skills gap growing across the nation before the pandemic has become even wider, with the greater reliance on technology and the lack of access in some communities. The pandemic has accelerated the disparate need for schools to prepare students for the greater reliance on technology and the skills that it requires. Having a solid understanding of computer programming, data literacy, the cloud and artificial intelligence will help students jettison beyond their non-tech savvy classmates.
Work Ethic. Success doesn’t come without putting in time, effort and elbow grease to set and accomplish goals, and colleges and employers are looking for those students who are able to put in that extra legwork to achieve without being asked. For those who want to stand out, seek awards, take on new roles or win athletic achievements or promotions, well-honed skills in work ethic mean putting in that extra time to succeed. Sometimes it means learning new skills or tools, and other times it means dedicating time to work extra hours for greater proficiency.
Development of the new essential skills
If we know that developing social-emotional learning is essential for success, how do we do it? First we must recognize that in this new era of rapid change, “solutions” will be emerging, re-emerging and evolving. In the early stages of this massive change, partnerships will be essential to inform and accelerate mutual learning. Given the orientation to lifelong learning, K-12 systems should increase connectedness with institutions of higher education and with emerging industry certification options. For example, Google recently launched a series of new certification options that may disrupt the conventional four-year college model. Innovative universities, such as Minerva Schools, a member of the Claremont University Consortium, are launching ambitious new programs like the Minerva Baccalaureate that could transform pathways to higher education. California community colleges are creating bachelor degree options. These are likely just the tip of the spear that will result in additional changes in how we think about pathways to the future.
Examples of partnerships that increase connectedness are the California State University San Marcos guaranteed admissions programs with local high schools. In addition to creating viable entry procedures, CSUSM routinely convenes with local districts to discuss ways in which a collaborative approach would benefit students and the community.
Vista Unified School District also incorporated a “talent cities” approach where elementary schools focused on service learning projects, middle schools were connected with major employers in the region and high school students were offered college and career pathways tied to priority sectors identified by the San Diego Workforce Partnership.
In Northern California, MetroED operates the Silicon Valley CTE Center, which serves over 40 high schools and 1,300 students. All students spend 50 percent of their day at the center, and leave with anywhere from one to 11 industry certifications, free to students in just one school year. In 2019-20, the attendance rate for over 1,300 students was 93 percent due to student engagement and connectivity to their coursework. One hundred and twenty-five students received Dual Enrollment college credit due to close partnerships with all six local community colleges. Over 235 students participated in internships related to their coursework during the school year. Most notable is that the CTE center offers 18 UC "A-G” courses.
In the 30,000-student Mt. Diablo Unified School District, a summer program just completed its fifth summer of internships, in coordination with the Business Education Alliance. Students are required to complete 120 hours — this includes the weekly seminars. Internship hosts have included the school district, City of Concord, Monument Crisis Center, Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association, Family Justice Center, AgLantis, Contra Costa County Health, John Muir Health and La Clinica. In addition to students helping with the day-to-day operations of the internship hosts, they also focus on a particular project that focuses on industry-specific skills as well as their work readiness. For example, this last summer a group of students developed a social media campaign, while another tested a software program and presented their findings to teams of evaluators. In another scenario, a group of students organized and facilitated online activities for a summer camp. Over the course of the internships, students complete a portfolio that includes informational interviews with their hosts, examples of work completed, a request for a letter of reference and a letter of application for a job, all of which cover many soft skills important in the business world and beyond.
The net result is that we need to continue to rethink college and career pathways. Knowing that the road ahead will be changing, our best bet is to focus on whole-child outcomes and to develop lifelong learners. If we orient toward an impact framework that includes agency, collaboration and problem-solving, our students will be prepared for an adaptive future.
We love the idea that we should shift away from asking students what career they want to have, instead asking a more enduring question: What problems do you want to solve? We recommend orienting to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for inspiration. Engaging our students now as problem-solvers is an excellent way to promote meaningful engagement and to help young learners to identify how their strengths and interests can help to make the world a better place.
For this to work for kids, we need to model lifelong learning as adults. As Marc Brackett, Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a Professor in the Child Study Center of Yale University, chronicles in “Permission to Feel,” we must begin this work with our own staff. If the importance of social-emotional learning and the value of relationships were not already evident, recent research from the University of California San Diego that was conducted in partnership with Arcadia Unified School District found that improvements in the levels of trust were predictive of improvements in many other important areas. In fact, “students’ trust in their educators (principal and teacher trust) has the highest average association with all areas that together make up the student’s school experience” (SOURCE). A similar phenomenon was found when analyzing the level of trust that teachers had for their principals, where principal trust was found to have the highest overall association with areas that together make up the teacher’s daily experiences in their work, including collaboration between teachers, communication with parents, instructional practices and equity beliefs.
As school administrators, we must model self-care and implement routines that are good for adult wellness, including social-emotional and mental health. Setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, expressing gratitude, taking breaks, exercising and maintaining a vibrant social life are all known to be “bucket-filling” activities that will enhance our professional productivity and effectiveness. The corporate world has been faster to recognize that self-care and rest are additive and that they should be promoted and supported. In education we can do much better in this area, and it must begin with us.
Summing it all up
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a great deal. We’ve learned what is important in our lives, both personally and professionally. The time spent relying on technology for communication and minimizing travel means business leaders have shifted their companies toward reflection on how they want to act in the world, and not necessarily what they can achieve. The shifts in perspective have elevated a focus on soft skills and positive character traits.
School districts that invest in soft skill training can better future-proof their programs and prepare students to develop the characteristics most needed in college and the professional world. The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for us to be self-aware, emotionally intelligent and adaptive. These are no longer just soft skills, they are essential skills. Let’s treat them as such.
Lisa Gonzales is the Chief Business Officer at Mount Diablo Unified School District. Devin Vodicka is the Chief Impact Officer at Altitude Learning and former superintendent of Vista Unified School District.
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