Why 'soft skills' are worth assessing too

Why 'soft skills' are worth assessing too

Singapore parents are no different from American parents in fretting over education changes, whether the subject is examinations or school admission.

But American education expert Brian Stecher says change, though painful at times, is needed to prepare children for a world environment that is ever-changing and ambiguous.

Announcing various changes to the education system in response to criticism that children face too much stress too soon, the Education Ministry stated two months ago that it was looking into broadening the Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system.

But what made some parents sit up was the ministry's move to also expand the Direct School Admission scheme which allows children with a special talent or ability to secure a place in a secondary school of their choice regardless of their PSLE results.

The ministry suggested taking into account qualities such as a child's character, leadership and resilience - and that left parents asking if secondary school admission might become less transparent and more subjective, because how would such soft skills be assessed? Dr Stecher, who was in Singapore to speak at a symposium on the teaching and assessment of 21st century skills organised by the US-based Asia Society, says the parents' concerns are understandable, but educators around the world, convinced of the "absolute importance" of these skills, are already looking at ways to teach and assess skills such as communication and digital literacy.

Nurturing soft skills and building character in students is no easy task, he adds.

"Teaching communication skills and digital literacy is one thing, but how do you build character, qualities such as resilience, grit and 'stick-to-it-iveness', which studies show are important for success in college and life? What sort of experiences must you provide students to nurture these qualities in them? There are no easy answers to these questions," he says. If "teaching" those skills is difficult, measuring and assessing them is even more so.

But he points out that there are schools and organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - which runs the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test - that are working on interesting ways to measure these qualities. The 2015 Pisa study will not only test 15-year-olds in mathematics and science and literacy but will also test them on whether they are able to collaborate well with others to solve problems.

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