We recently worked with school district to conduct vertical team training. Initially, they wanted me to help the middle and high school teachers in the core subject areas to do a better job of aligning their instruction. We started the day with an activity we call “Five in/ Five out,” where we ask teachers to work with their grade-alike colleagues to identify five skills they absolutely need students to come in with and five skills they guarantee students will leave with. When the grade-alike groups finished working, we posted their five in/five outs on the wall to look for alignment. What we found was shocking.
All of the grade levels wanted the same basic five ins – reading skills, study skills, discipline, writing skills, good work habits. There five outs had to do with the curriculum but their five ins were entirely about soft skills.
“Wow. Look at that,” we pointed out the discrepancy.
A few teachers became immediately defensive. “Our kids don’t come to us with the background knowledge and study skill they need to be successful,” they explained.
“Where were they supposed to learn how to study?” we asked. The high school teachers pointed to the middle school teachers. The middle school teachers blamed the elementary teachers.
“If no one owns the teaching of these soft skills, it’s no wonder your students don’t have them,” we mused.
From there, we lead teachers into a really interesting discussion about why students weren’t coming in with the soft skills they needed and how they could help them acquire them. We quickly realized that while the workshop was supposed to help teams better vertically align the curriculum, we wouldn’t get anywhere unless we first dealt with soft skills.
So we did. We shifted gears and started with identifying the key soft skills students would need to be successful. We looked at both non-cognitive skills (such study skills, social skills, and the ability to set long-term goals), thinking skills (such as comparison contrast and error analysis), and thinking processes (such as decision making and problem solving). First, we made sure that everyone understood what these skills really entailed, then we asked vertical teams to work together to determine when they would help students acquire each of these skills. Would students learn study skills in seventh grade or was that too late? Perhaps students should learn error analysis in grade nine to prepare them for the problem solving tasks they would have to complete in grade 10. We even went a little further, pushing teams to identify when students would be introduced to the skill, when they would reinforce the skills, and finally, when they would extend the skill. At the end of the day, all the teams walked away with a list of over 25 soft skills and a plan for when they would introduce, reinforce, and extend those skills over time.
Too often, we spend time in vertical team meetings trying so hard to get the curriculum perfectly aligned that we miss the critical soft skills that help students access the curriculum in the first place. Instead, take time to look at the soft skills so many students are missing and look at ways to help students acquire these. Doing so will help your students reach curricular goals much easier.