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Schools will teach "soft skills" from 2017, but assessing them presents a challenge

When students go back to school in January 2017 there will be some significant changes to their timetables. As well as learning areas like English, maths and science, there will be some new things to grapple with called “capabilities”.

The Australian curriculum will be focusing not just on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – but also on the kinds of “soft” skills young people will need if they are to be successful throughout their lives.

The new capabilities are:

  • Information and communication technology – using technology to access information, create products and solve problems

  • Critical and creative thinking – learning how to think and find ways to approach problems

  • Personal and social – recognising others’ emotions, supporting diversity and working together

  • Ethical – understanding values and concepts that underpin views

  • Intercultural – learning about your own and others’ cultures and beliefs.

From 2017 teachers will be expected to teach and assess these capabilities, although state and territory education authorities can determine whether the capabilities will be assessed.

In Victoria schools will be required to assess progress in the development of students’ capabilities, and there will be a specific focus on improving critical and creative thinking.

Why “soft” skills are important

To call these skills “soft” is actually unhelpful. It implies they are not as important or demanding as the so-called hard stuff like the 3Rs. They are. They include attributes such as collaboration, perseverance, problem solving, empathy and self reflection. The rationale for their inclusion in any curriculum is sound.

Economists like James Heckman have made the case in terms of improved life outcomes such as higher employment rates and lower rates of crime.

Psychologists such as Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman have shown how capabilities predict success in education more powerfully than conventional measures such as IQ. For example, students with greater self discipline apply themselves more to their schoolwork and are less likely to be distracted.

Employers the world over acknowledge that they are vital to the future prosperity. In a global world, people need to understand different cultures to collaborate across borders.

And the globally regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests selected collaborative problem-solving in 2015 to sit alongside English, maths and science – a sure indication that this capability is both important and assessable.

But how do you assess these skills?

At the school level, just how do you assess these more generic capabilities? And when you get beneath the surface, what exactly is being assessed?

Work on assessing capabilities is underway in Asia and North America. A major study by the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) into the assessment of creative and critical thinking is taking place in fourteen countries including Wales, France and Brazil.

From work like this, we know that we need to think about teaching methods (how useful assessment is for learners); practicalities (how doable it is for teachers in busy classrooms); and various technical issues of assessments (being sure results are reliable, valid and fair).

Most of all, we cannot helpfully assess any capability unless we can precisely define it for students, teachers, parents and employers.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) has helped by selecting four key capabilities and mapping out in detail likely progression from Foundation through to Year 10.

Elsewhere in the state there is a trial being supported by the Mitchell Institute involving eleven schools.

Early learning from these schools suggests teachers need to change the way they teach to encourage more rigorous group work, better project planning, more effective feedback and the use of well-framed questions to drive authentic enquiries into real-world problems.

Assessing capabilities is harder than assessing subjects – and the evidence base is much less well-formed.

Knowing that a student achieved a level 8b in critical and creative thinking is not particularly useful.

But from the trial we are finding that students need to become more critically reflective and develop digital portfolios of evidence.

Digital portfolios are collections of student work that demonstrate their achievements either to the school or also, as in the case of open badges, publicly.

More nuanced assessment needed

Teachers have to use progress criteria more reliably. Experts from outside school can provide expert, authentic feedback.

Online tests developed by VCAA are now available for some aspects of capabilities.

In our own work for the OECD we have discovered how assessment needs to be more nuanced than the production of simple grades producing feedback specifically designed to improve learners’ progress.

Across the world there are initiatives which demonstrate that capabilities can be both developed and assessed.

These include Building Learning Power, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, AC21S, and New Pedagogies for Deeper Learning which is now being tried in more than 70 Victorian schools.

For more than a hundred years we have focused on teaching and assessing disciplinary knowledge in schools. Now we need to focus on capabilities as well. While it will not necessarily come naturally to all teachers, it is vital work.


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