Soft skills may outweigh smarts

Soft skills may outweigh smarts

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So I successfully defended my dissertation this week (Yeah!), and now can pay  a bit more attention to this blog. I wrote this response to a This American Life episode a few months ago but never got around to publishing it. It may not be timely, but I hope it’s still relevant…

Recently This American Life featured an interview with Paul Tough about his new book, reminding us that just being smart isn’t enough; kids also need something else to succeed. On the show, they dance around what to call these non-cognitive skills… social skills, character, personality. I like to think of them as soft skills, the ability to get along, pursue interests, and persevere. In the long run these may be just as important as reading and math ability. 

Whenever folks talk about the effects of these soft skills, they inevitably bring up the marshmallow test, that now-famous way to torture your three-year-old in the name of science. (If you haven’t yet done so, check out the videos on youtube. Hilarious!) Basically, how long kids can wait before eating the marshmallow predicts how successful they’ll be as adults, everything from graduation rates to career success to divorce rates.

All of this got me thinking about Head Start, which often gets attacked because the improvements in test scores fade over time. But what it does do may be more important than those math and reading scores. Attending Head Start makes you more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to end up in jail, which are better measures of success than test scores anyway.

It also reminded me of my own classroom, where I valued independence and inquiry in addition to academics, spending more time teaching children to ask great questions and persevere rather than on test prep.

But now I design math software. My goal is to improve math ability. Given the importance of these soft skills, is this no longer a priority? Clearly math is still important, but the way we deliver the content may also matter. In the show they discussed one major barrier to developing these social skills: STRESS. I’m betting that getting a chance to learn math from a game instead of a workbook will have two effects: 1) teach math better and 2) lower school stress, both of which contribute to later success.


What do you think?
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Kara