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Monday, June 1, 2015

Schools Need To Teach More Than Academic Subjects

First appeared on Blogcritics.

soft4There has always been a debate in schools and at home as to what should be taught in school. Many of you can remember a time when “phonics’ was like a four-letter word. A generation of kids never learned phonetic skills and paid the price later on in life, and teachers who cried out for the return of phonics were finally heard and that practice came back into classrooms.

This is nothing new in education, but while adults do the debating the students end up suffering through times of change or indecision. Now we have a war over Common Core State Standards, standardized and state testing, and the growing push for charter schools. The list of debatable items grows incessantly, and parents are left wondering why they cannot be heard and have a voice in what is happening in schools. Recently many parents fought back against standardized testing by have their children opt-out of the exams, and it would seem parents have been emboldened by this and want more input in what happens in schools.

soft1We parents always want what’s best for our children in school and at home. While the debate rages over academic issues, there are also other things that need to be taught in schools that are equally important. A recent NPR article highlighted the need to teach nonacademic skills that will be important for children’s success not just academically but in the real world. Among the things that need to be taught according to writer Anya Kamenetz are social-emotional skills, grit, soft skills, and 21st century skills. Each of the areas all come out of teaching a thing called “character” – and, as she notes, “Character education has a long history in the U.S.” The issue has been that many educators and parents have not been guided as to how this exactly gets fit into the daily routine.

The problem most parents will note is that “character” is not found on a report card as a subject taught. We may get a section regarding “Personal Behavior” where areas like “respects school rules” or “works independently” are listed and graded, but this has nothing to do with established instruction that will help the child achieve these and other goals that will help him or her socialize now and succeed later in life.

“Character” covers a wide array of things that we can hope children will take away from their school days. This doesn’t come from prepping for hours to do well on state assessments; there needs to be a sustained form of instruction that occurs weekly and from year-to-year in order for there to be results. Some sort of class should be established in which these things can be addressed consistently.

soft3We all may think of something like “21st century skills” as being able to use a computer, but we parents well know that our kids are using devices such as an iPad or PC earlier than ever, but using something does not mean a child is proficient in making it a tool for success. In many schools kids go to computer class one day a week, and that is better than nothing, but how well are they learning to utilize these devices for study, research, and writing?

The so-called “soft skills” are things that adults either know how to do or not – such as arrive on time for a job interview, look a person in the eye, shake hands, introduce someone to someone else, hold the door for the person behind them, and just basically get through the day well. It would seem these things should be a given, but sadly some of you will note that you encounter people on a daily basis who do not know how to do these things.

soft2Perhaps the most crucial element here – the social and emotional skills – are the hardest to be taught. As a parent and an educator I have seen many kids who “fit in” and get how to do it, but there are many who do not. The fact is that these skills need to be taught in a setting with the teacher leading the way, and that is not always happening in our schools. It is not enough for our children to become academically adept anymore – they need to know how to get through school and move on to a life where they can be successful and happy adults.

One thing that must be noted is that religious schools tend to have a great advantage in this area because this whole concept of “nonacademic skills” gets taught once a day – in religion class. Here kids get to talk about things not just related to theology but to life itself. Teachers guide students in ways to live a better life. The 21st century skills may not be covered in these classes, but in my experience every one of the others is addressed, usually on a daily basis.

As educators discuss increasing daily instruction time, they should be looking for a way to not just increase minutes for math and English lessons. This would be a golden opportunity to make nonacademic skills part of the academic landscape. If schools require art, physical education, and music classes, then they should also be mandated to fit character education into the schedule in some tangible manner.

It is up to parents and teachers to continue to do what they do best – work together to advocate change that will be a significant improvement for students. In this case schools would be providing a necessary and compelling service by allocating class time to teach these nonacademic areas. In this way children will be taught not to just do well on tests but to excel in the most important area – life itself.

  Photo credits: npr.org, safenetwork.org, tech-kids.com,discipleblog.com

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