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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Soft vs Hard Data (and Learning)

There is a vigorous debate (some would call it a battle) going on around the nation, and within the halls of the Texas Capitol.  Much of it has to do with what the future of education should look like, what "good" schooling should be, and how students/schools/teachers should be measured (and labeled). 

Academic prowess is a good thing and we are right to address it with zeal in our schools.  However, an equally important set of learning outcomes exists, and in my view, schools should be addressing those elements, too.  I would even argue that those "soft" skills and ways of thinking may be even more important to the lifelong success and happiness of our children than is academic acumen. 

Seligman (2002) has identified six commonly "virtues" valued across many and varied cultures:  Wisdom/Knowledge, Courage, Humanitarianism, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence.  

Similarly, Costa and Kallick (2000) identified 16 "habits of mind" representative of these "soft skills" that not only support academic performance, but enhance interpersonal and intrapersonal effectiveness:  Persisting, Managing impulsivity, Listening with understanding and empathy,Thinking flexibly, Metacognition, Striving for accuracy, Questioning and posing problems, Applying past knowledge to new situations, Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, Gathering data through all senses, Creating-imagining-innovating, Responding with wonderment and awe, Taking responsible risks, Finding humor, Thinking interdependently, and Remaining open to continuous learning. 

The SCANS Report for America (2000) identified five skills and competencies needed for success in the work place:  1) Ability to identify, organize, and allocate resources of all kinds, 2) Interpersonal skills needed to work effectively with others, 3) Ability to acquire and evaluate information, 4) Systems thinking acumen, and 5) Ability to work with multiple technologies.  

Goleman (1998) posits along the same lines, framing these proclivities as "emotional intelligences": 

Self-awareness – the ability to know one's emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings to guide decisions; 
Self-regulation – involves controlling or redirecting one's disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances; 
Social skill – managing relationships to move people in the desired direction; 
Empathy - considering other people's feelings especially when making decisions; and 
Motivation - being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement. 
Goleman also provides measurement models for these dimensions.

Finally, Gardner (1983) describes the importance on diversified thinking in terms of "multiple intelligences" which he categorizes as: Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Linguistic, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, and Existential. 

Many think of these skills and competencies as "soft."  However, as I reflect on the people I know personally as well as some of the widely known figures I admire and emulate, I find it is exactly these "soft" kinds of characteristics that generate my admiration for them, not their academic prowess.  Senge (1990) notes that the "soft" data is in many ways more important than the "hard" data, and that it is always more difficult to measure.  

We should not forsake considering some synthesis of these soft skills for inclusion as desirable outcomes pursued by schools simply because they are more ambigous and/or more difficult to measure. 

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