Opinion: Don’t Rush to Assess Soft Skills like Grit

It’s disconcerting to watch school systems begin to add measures of soft skills like “grit” to their accountability systems. At a[…]Continue Reading

It’s disconcerting to watch school systems begin to add measures of soft skills like “grit” to their accountability systems. At a time when everyone seems to agree that there is too much testing going, why would schools want to add still more assessments?

Education Week recently ran an article reporting on some of the debate around this issue. Researchers noted that that if the goal is to measure soft skills as part of schools’ accountability systems, then schools need to develop more reliable and objective ways of measuring them.

Currently most of the instruments in use and being developed are largely self-reports – students taking surveys on which they report on their own behavior. There are a lot of reasons why this kind of self-reporting may not be totally accurate. For one, kids are smart enough to know what the ideal response is. Some students want to please, others want to stand out. Teens may judge themselves in relation to their peers. In addition, some of these questions are touchy.

Parents are very sensitive about survey-like instruments that probe in these non-academic areas. If use becomes more widespread, it’s pretty certain that parental concerns about analyzing, reporting and storing this type of data are going to escalate.

Teaching Grit, Resilience Requires Expertise

I’m not arguing against a focus on developing social-emotional or other non-academic skills. I’m not even arguing against measurement. It’s just that there’s a lot of work to be done here and it requires real expertise. Thoughtful districts are starting to do that work. The Washoe County (Reno, NV) School Districts is working with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to refine its SEL measures. Washoe is one of eight urban districts working with CASEL to improve their SEL efforts and outcomes.


At another level, I wonder if grit or growth mindset has become the newest silver bullet. There’s no question that developing non-academic skills – helping students understand that they can “grow their brains,” reflect on their thinking, focus on the process of learning, persist and try harder – makes for more self-directed and confident learners and may even result in improved achievement.

But all of this is a process, not an end in itself. And educators have to be sure that they have done the reading and research that ensures that they are implementing these ideas faithfully. Educator mindsets need to grow as well. Persistence is really important, but students can’t be endlessly urged to try harder. The goal is to learn, not just try.

Has the teacher done a good job with instruction? Does the student have the necessary information needed to solve the problem? What is the sticking point and why is that the case? What scaffolds might be helpful? Does the student just need a break? Is the teacher engaged in a real dialog with the student about the task at hand?

All in all, I think I’m more inclined to hope for classrooms where each student is treated as a valuable member of the learning community – with lots to contribute and lots still to be explored. And while grit and resilience and self-efficacy are all important, so is a sense of play. A learning community that is marked by shared efforts, individual passions, tolerance and respect supports both academic and personal growth.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more conversation about and insights into the challenges of school leadership.