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News & Press: Guest blog

Guest Blogpost: Putting 21st Century and Social-Emotional Skills at the Core of your Approach

02 July 2018  

By David Fu
Chief Operating Officer at Streetlight Schools

Transformative schools -- the ones that inspire us and push our thinking -- not only think of assessing 21st century and social-emotional skills, but actually place the development of these skills at the core of their approach.

I had the pleasure of attending the Global Schools Forum Annual Meeting for the first time in 2018. As a testament to the strong work of the GSF team, the operators and funders they brought together were outstanding. The agenda was full of panels, talks and action-oriented sessions where various stakeholders shared their perspectives and lessons. Key themes included storytelling, using lean-data, and what longitudinal data tells us about macro education trends country-by-country. And, the fireside chat was great fun, reminding us to take the work, but not ourselves, too seriously.

Beyond the relationships (which for me are almost always the most important part of any conference), one of the most enjoyable activities was the challenge carousel and a conversation facilitated by Saurabh Taneja, the CEO of The Akanksha Foundation. I enjoyed it so much, that I twice joined the same conversation facilitated with different participants. He asked us the following question that I’ve heard repeated over and over again by educators, school & system leaders, entrepreneurs, and school operators the world over:

How do we assess 21st century skills / social-emotional skills? *

* 21st century skills / social-emotional skills also go by others names such as soft skills / nonacademic skills / grit / character / growth mindset. Having spoken to hundreds of teachers, students, parents, entrepreneurs and visited some 50 schools over the last 5 years, I also think we’re doing students a massive disservice by taking such a narrow view of nonacademic skills. I’m instead going to call them meta skills. I think they’re broader in scope than any subset previously named. They should become the centerpiece of education alongside the fundamentals of numeracy and literacy, how we got to the world the way it is today (history), how the world works (science, economics, politics, systems), and how people work. But this is for another post.

After Saurabh presented Akanksha’s view of 21st century and social-emotional skills, the conversation covered: what is motivating the desire to assess (the organization itself, funders, parents), formative vs. summative, age-differentiated tools and approaches, what level of granularity is desired, the possibility of quantitative vs. qualitative tools, following up with graduates to see if they have developed these skills and more. It was one of the best examples of collaborative problem-solving and sharing that GSF facilitated during the conference, and what GSF hoped to foster among its members. I believe there is great opportunity for GSF to surface issues and challenges that all operators are facing, many of which came up during this year’s Forum. From issues in academics, operations or fundraising, GSF should determine the best ways it can support members to address these.

Following this conference, I went to London where my (surprise) favorite event, not named the GSF Annual Meeting, was organized by the Green School Bali. It included a panel conversation with the founder, a parent, a student, and a champion facilitated by a teacher. Different stories and perspectives shared helped cement the narrative that the Green School was a magical place, loved by students, teachers, parents, and champions alike. What made it magical was portrayed differently by different people: it was a green school with ‘walls’ made of bamboo, it was promoting green living and learning, it was creating changemakers, it was motivating students by giving them a cause, it was empowering a 17-year old to travel the world giving TEDx talks and push for her eco-cause locally and internationally. There could be no doubt it was having an impact on its students.

What I realized is that the most successful, inspiring and innovative schools and organizations are the ones not only thinking of assessing 21st century and social-emotional skills, but actually putting them at the core of their approach. What’s interesting is that these schools and people don’t often tout those skills directly. Rather they showcase examples where it’s so evident that students have developed critical skills that will empower them to be artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, citizens, changemakers and leaders. These schools fundamentally treat students with respect as human beings with individual agency, motivation, emotions, and personalities. They inspire them with a narrative that they can deeply invest in, that acknowledges their internal narratives, the context and communities they come from. This touches on an important lesson about storytelling that was shared at GSF: what people remember most are not facts, figures, or theorems; they remember stories.

The bottom line for me was a reminder about why we work so hard to measure 21st century skills, tell our story, raise funds, scale, and use data (sometimes lean); to ensure we’re having a transformational impact on children’s lives. When you have so many children not receiving quality education opportunities, and there’s talk about X number of schools serving Y number of students, let’s not forget why we do this work.

So, in the spirit of optimism and design-thinking, my big takeaway for Streetlight Schools is as follows: How might we be courageous and instead of breadth, focus on depth of impact, by designing Jeppe Park Middle (Grades 4-7) to truly inspire and develop our kids to become self-aware, open-minded, reflective, motivated, kind people that will make a difference in the world? In fact, we’re hiring a founding school leader to help us answer this question!  
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