First the good news. Girls collaborate better than boys, in every country. Well, at least in every country that participates in PISA testing. This is the finding from the PISA 2015 Collaborative Problem Solving Assessment. Girls outperform boys, and girls in Canada rank 5th in the world, following only Singapore, Japan, Finland and South Korea, and outperforming the OECD global average for girls.
Before we get too excited and self-congratulatory, there is bad news hidden in the details. According to the report, “not even one in ten students can handle problem-solving tasks that require them to maintain awareness of group dynamics, take the initiative to overcome obstacles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts (p. 5).” That’s a damning condemnation of the value that governments and educational systems around the world assign to the “soft skills”, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for the younger generation.
Futurists have cautioned for decades that schools are educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs – jobs that don’t yet exist. But as we know, the structure of schooling is remarkably resistant to change, and despite understanding that we need to do schooling differently, institutional change is slow to come. Ministries of Education and universities still view the 100% grade as the holy grail. Many parents do, too, and grades, not soft skills, often become the focus of conversation at Parent-Teacher Conferences across the country. I can count on one hand the number of times a parent wanted to dispute a teacher’s assessment of their child’s learning skills and work habits on the report card. “Really, Mrs. Smith. I think my dear Fifi’s ability to self-regulate is much stronger than your most recent evaluation suggests.” That’s one sentence I’ve yet to hear. A math or science or English grade, on the other hand? Let’s just say I don’t have enough hands (or feet) for me to count those conversations.
Here’s what we all would be wise to consider. Content is no longer king. Memorizing facts will not help a child “make it” in the workplace of the future, and having no ability to understand or manage group dynamics will put them at a significant disadvantage. What good is it for an employee to be highly proficient in calculus if they can’t work well with colleagues, or listen to a client’s concerns, or disagree respectfully with their boss in a meeting? There’s a reason that many medical schools are reconsidering their reliance on the MCAT, the standardized multiple-choice computer-based test used for decades, turning instead to alternate forms of assessment such as the CASPer, a situational judgement test that presents realistic hypothetical scenarios and asks individuals what they would do and why. CASPer looks for evidence of empathy, problem solving, communication, collaboration, motivation and ethical behaviour – the qualities we look for in good physicians. It doesn’t test knowledge of biology or chemistry or mathematics. It doesn’t care if you can name every bone in the human body. These things can be taught, medical schools believe. Human compassion? Perhaps not.
Increasingly, recognition of the value of non-academic skills is challenging the way university admissions evaluate applicants, and the way companies evaluate employees. I was impressed while talking to my own daughter about her recent performance evaluation process at work. The skills her company values are creativity, innovative problem solving and initiative, along with teamwork, collaboration and effective communication. Her industry knowledge and advanced Excel skills are an asset, but that’s not what her workplace culture emphasizes. Her company’s executives talk about wanting people to bring a positive energy to the team, recognizing the importance of fostering skills that allow diverse groups to experience synergy and perform effectively.
I encourage every parent to read Phyllis Fagell’s Washington Post article, 7 strategies to help prepare your child for the rapidly changing work world. It challenges the belief that grades will be enough to ensure future success, noting that, “As jobs disappear to automation, soft skills such as agility and inventiveness may predict success more than grades, scores or core knowledge.” I know it’s unrealistic for parents to stop worrying completely about their child’s report card, especially when grades remain the sole determinant of admission to many post-secondary programs. But I will challenge parents and educators alike to focus on the long game – to think about the importance of preparing children for a workplace unlike any we’ve known. By acknowledging that the way we were schooled is not what today’s children will need, and in valuing the non-academic skills essential to their future success, schools and parents can prepare children for a world of possibilities.
 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment
 OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.