Soft skills and educational reform

Paul Tough, who wrote the wonderful book “Whatever It Takes” about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, has a good article in the September 18 New York Times magazine.  The article looks at how both a top private school and a KIPP school are trying to improve “character” as a way to improve students’ life success.

Essentially, the article is about “soft skills”, and their importance in life success. For example, Paul Tough talks about how both “grit” – the willingness to persevere to achieve goals – and self-control are important in determining educational attainment.

The importance of “soft skills” is something that everyone knows, yet our systems of child development and education do not fully act on this knowledge. What preschool does with “soft skills” is an essential part of preschool’s success in influencing long-run life success. Yet later education seems less holistic and less attuned to these important character traits. And educational reform seems to be moving education in a less holistic direction over time.

As Paul Tough points out, “character” is more than being a moral person. It also involves skills that allow one to actually succeed, not just aim for the stars. My mother’s favorite saying was that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Even if good intentions don’t lead to hell, they don’t necessarily need to success. Character traits such as “grit” and self-control are also needed.

As someone trained in political philosophy, I find it interesting that we have to rediscover something that the ancient Greek philosophers already knew. The Greeks talked about “arête”, which is usually translated as “virtue”, but can also be translated as “excellence”. For the ancient Greeks, there was no sharp break between the various character traits that meant human excellence: wisdom, justice, courage, moderation. They were all part of what made a good person, both virtues that were more “moral” (e.g., justice, and to some extent moderation), and those that represented greater human capabilities to achieve some goal (e.g., wisdom and courage, and to some extent moderation).

In contrast, our society has a more impoverished view of what good character and human excellence means: we tend to think of it as some combination of literacy and math skills plus being a moral person. But there are many important character traits that are missing from that vision.

High-quality education needs to develop a balanced human excellence. Both soft skills and hard skills are needed. And “soft skills” means not only getting along well with fellow students and the teacher. It also includes the ability to plan, to defer gratification, and to pursue goals. These character traits can be developed in children from the earliest ages, including in preschool.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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