The world has changed during the pandemic and nowhere can this be seen more than in schools or the workplace. It would be wrong, however, to think that it has changed completely, and that a totally different set of skills is now required. Moreso, it’s that the pandemic has given us pause for thought – time to take a step back and work out what competencies are really important. Across the board, the conclusion that has been reached is that 21st Century skills, which combine traditional competencies and soft skills, may be more indicative of future job performance compared to hard skills alone.
Hard and Soft Skills
So what’s the difference between hard skills and soft skills? In terms of the workplace, hard skills are those based on the knowledge related to the tasks an employee needs to perform in a particular job. Competencies related to mathematics, science and reading are often thought of as hard skills when it comes to teaching and learning. Soft skills, on the other hand, are more about personal qualities. They play a significant role in how a person approaches tasks, builds relationships and communicates with others.
In a survey run by LinkedIn, 80% said employees’ soft skills were critical to a company’s success, whilst 92% said they mattered as much or more than hard skills. If they are so important for the workplace, it follows that it’s important for students to develop them.
Schools are, however, one of the institutions blamed for the lack of social and interpersonal skills – traditionally, a formal education aspect for learning these skills has been lacking. But this is beginning to change as a focus is placed on preparing students with a 21st Century education. To establish whether students are now learning these skills, it’s important to be able to assess them accurately.
What Exactly are 21st Century Skills?
The most commonly named skills to emerge as helpful strings to the bows of students who are leaving the world of education and entering the jobs market in the post-pandemic era include:
- Problem solving (and flexibility)
- Digital proficiency (being tech savvy)
- Collaboration (being able to communicate well, using emotional intelligence)
- Critical thinking (and problem-solving)
Measuring 21st Century Skills
21st Century skills have often been described as ‘intangible, poorly defined, subjective, interpersonal, situational, and squishy‘, and are notoriously difficult to measure, which is probably one reason why they have been neglected for so long. In contrast, as hard skills are based for the most part on knowledge, they are much easier to quantify.
Portable Custom Interactions
In a digital context, assessment tools that support the QTI standard and Portable Custom Interactions (PCIs) can redefine how we measure 21st Century skills. PCIs allow test creators to incorporate game-like simulations that promote multi-step problem solving into an exam, and require students to engage in deeper competencies like creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration to name a few. Using PCIs, educators can collect rich data into the way students approach a problem, as well as the steps they take to get to their final answer, and better understand their mastery of these skills.
The French Ministry of Education relies heavily on PCIs in assessments to measure 21st Century skills. It’s worth taking a look at their approach to measuring student creativity and collaboration.
Another suggestion which has been made for how to measure 21st Century skills is to use a rubric approach. A rubric is a scoring guide which is used to evaluate performance by providing the criteria that need to be evaluated and a rating scale, based on points.
In Plymouth, Wisconsin, Plymouth High School was recognized in 2013 for launching a successful soft skills instructional program “to enhance its academic instruction and the integrity of its grading practices.” Here teachers in each subject use a four‐point rubric to assess students across the following areas: collaboration, respect, initiative, and work habits. According to the report from Hanover Research, the criteria for assessing each skill includes “concrete measures of student behavior, such as completing work on time and participating in activities, as well as more qualitative measures of the student’s attitude.”
Taking a different approach, rather than using rubric scoring, the New York City Public Schools published their “priority benchmark skills” and accompanying assessments in information fluency that link the skills required for library research with specific soft skills, including:
- Using Inquiry to Build Understanding and Create New Knowledge
- Pursuing Personal and Aesthetic Growth
- The demonstration of social responsibility.
There has been a shift in focus in the skills a student needs in the post pandemic world, and this focus is now on 21st Century skills. It’s not that students didn’t need these skills before the pandemic, of course, but the pandemic has given us a chance to re-access how we do things, and to address our priorities. The recognition of the importance of 21st Century skills has been gathering pace for some years, and it’s probably true to say that the pandemic has sped up this process.
Many of the skills which are now seen as so essential are based on human relationships and emotional well-being; on how people relate to and interpret the world around them – both cognitively and emotionally. In short, we’ve come to realize that humans aren’t machines. And even if it’s difficult to measure these ‘human’ skills, the fact that we have realized their importance, and are trying to do so, is a step in the right direction.