Should we grade soft skills, Japan-style?

Will Millard recently visited Japan, where schools assess pupils’ curiosity and confidence. Can it help the UK, he asks

I recently had the pleasure of visiting schools in and around Tokyo for a week, speaking to teachers and educationalists about assessment for LKMco and Pearson’s forthcoming report, ‘Testing the water’.

It is no secret that students in Japan perform very well indeed academically; the country has historically always performed well in the OECD PISA rankings, and in 2015 it came second only to Singapore overall. To my surprise, though, I found teachers and principals wanted to talk less about academics, and more about the considerable time and energy they spend developing and grading pupils’ “soft skills”.

As LKMco and Pearson’s report will highlight, many teachers and parents in England are concerned that statutory tests and exams narrow the curriculum, and that soft skills are sidelined. We want to know whether our teachers should begin grading and reporting pupils’ soft skills to redress this balance, Japan-style?

Teachers see assessing pupils’ soft skills as a way of counteracting the impact of university entrance exams

The soft skills that Japanese teachers assess depend on the curriculum area. However, most teachers take into account pupils’ willingness to study, curiosity and confidence. At a school I visited in the Tokyo ward of Sumida, subject teachers use their professional judgement to award pupils with A to C grades in each soft skill, in each subject.

As a teacher in Kunitachi explained, students’ grades in these areas are non-trivial and can affect which high school (and, on rare occasions, which university) pupils are accepted into. Many teachers therefore see assessing pupils’ soft skills as a way of counteracting the impact of university entrance exams, which are very much focused on academic knowledge, and in particular on language and maths.

So would grading pupils’ soft skills be something worth adopting here? On reflection, I think not. While I think the rationale for doing so in Japan is laudable, I had reservations about some of what I saw.

Although the government has published guidance that provides criteria for what a B might look like in each skill in each subject, it is up to schools and teachers to decide what constitutes an A or C. As our report explains, using level or grade descriptors to make judgements about pupils’ work can lead to unreliable results. Indeed, a number of the teachers I spoke to talked about the difficulty of ensuring their judgements tallied with their colleagues’. Many schools mitigate against this through moderation, with teachers coming together in subject teams to compare judgements, although this rarely happens between schools.

Furthermore, some school teachers and university staff explained how, in practice, there is often a close correlation between pupils’ soft skills and academic grades. In other words, achieving an A grade in maths will in most cases reflect a combination of strong subject knowledge and a willingness to study, curiosity, and so on. It would also be difficult (and likely undesirable) to improve a students’ confidence in a subject without their academic grades improving, so the separation of these could be misleading.

Yet, even if grading soft skills were objective and reliable, and provided meaningful information on top of academic grades, I found myself wondering whether this is the point. Like their counterparts in Japan, many teachers in England feel the curriculum is overly influenced by narrow, high-stakes tests. But the answer to this is not to keep grading more stuff. When we publish our report next week, we hope it will show some of the ways schools can use different assessments to support pupils’ development and how educational assessment can be reformed so that it helps all pupils achieve their potential.

“Testing the Water: How assessment can underpin, not undermine, great teaching” by LKMco and Pearson will be published on November 30, and next week’s edition of Schools Week will feature exclusive new data analysis from the report.

Will Millard is a senior associate at LKMco

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