Today I was at my kids' school for the annual parent-teacher conferences. Since my kids are at school during the day, and I'm at work --and given the few scraps of information they tend to share with me about their goings-on--I don't really know what they're doing, what they're learning, and what their performance and potential is, until I sit down face-to-face with their teachers.
While much of the focus of our discussion was on grades, a good chunk of our conversations was around my kids' behavior, their learning habits, their attitude toward class, and their interactions with their friends. I found that information incredibly revealing. In the space of just a few hours, I learned a lot about them that I wasn't aware of previously.
And yet, as valuable as that information was, none of it was captured in the black and white metrics that schools use to gauge the performance of their students: Grades. So while my son's ability to apply concepts he learns in calculus to solving new problems, or my daughter's ability to regurgitate facts about Aztec life, are captured with precision accuracy, the "softer," more intangible attributes that their teachers observe, are neither recorded nor formally recognized by them.
While I was happy to get a more rounded picture of my kids' performance and behavior at school, I left feeling mildly disappointed that all of the valuable information about their "softer" attributes that their teachers shared with me are not formally recorded or recognized. By the same token, many of their development needs -- the areas where they need to step-up or change -- weren't captured by their letter grades, either.
This all seems antiquated. In the very complex, increasingly uncertain, and intensely technology-driven world that we live in today, grades seem like a relic of the 20th century. Today, our kids need to learn a whole host of new skills if they want to be prepared to navigate their lives and careers with confidence and resilience.
Recent studies back this assertion up. As Jenny Anderson reports in Quartz, research by the Sutton Trust, a British foundation focused on social mobility, finds that 88 percent of young people, 94 percent of employers, and 97 percent of teachers say that "so-called life skills like motivation to tackle problems, interpersonal skills to work with others, and the resilience to stay on task when things fall apart, are as or more important than academic qualifications."
In fact, as Anderson reports, more than half of teachers surveyed --53 percent --believe these "non-cognitive" or "soft" skills are more important than academic skills to young people's success.
"It is the ability to show flexibility, creativity, and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills," says Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.
While schools may still be drilling our kids with heaps of facts and concepts they may never use or hear of again once they graduate, employers, on the other hand, seem to understand the importance of hiring people equipped with "softer" skills.
Recent research in the US shows that jobs requiring a combination of strong social and cognitive skills are rising far faster than those based on cognitive ability alone. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, "between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs -- including many STEM occupations --shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period."