Author Archives: Jeremy Voigt

On Google and Soft Skills and Things We Already do Well

21st century skills. Individual learning. STEM. These are just a few of the buzz words flitting around students heads as they prepare for their lives beyond high school.

The push for STEM has been strong and consistent for years now (8-10 depending on who you ask). STEM has been prescribed as necessary for students to survive in a world we cannot imagine and for jobs that do not exist. The truth is that education has always been possibly training students for jobs that do not exist in an unimaginable world. The details have changed, but the general progression of society and culture has not. How could it?

Two recent research projects at Google “Project Oxygen,” and “Project Aristotle,” have studied the behemoth company intensely (not a surprise from Google) and discovered the following are the traits of their most successful employees:

Conclusions from “Project Oxygen” (2013) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Conclusions from “Project Aristotle” (2017) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As an English teacher it is hard for me to find these conclusions surprising. Both of these lists echo reasons to read literature of all sorts and across all time periods, and reasons to write analytically and reflectively. Reasons supported by scientists and personal experience alike. These conclusions are also solid support for the argument for a liberal arts education (I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s great book).

The Washington Post article focus on what Google’s conclusions mean for students, and as a teacher I cannot help thinking about what they mean for education as a whole.  I understand the desire to glom onto STEM as a focus for students, because the outcomes for STEM are, more often than not, tangible and measurable. Plus, STEM is really important. The outcomes for humanities classes often encompass (even when they zero in on tangible activities or skills) the above decidedly intangible set of soft skills. How do we measure a student’s capacity to “possess insights into others?” Or even measure critical thinking? These are inherently messy proposals.

My district and most of our surrounding districts have begun a process of embracing the ambiguity of this situation. We are learning about “Deep Learning.” Explaining deep learning is as convoluted and problematic as fostering generosity in a student. These are huge, abstract, human concepts. The question I keep finding at the forefront of my mind is this one: what differentiates “deeper learning” (or insert your own professional development term of choice here) from what we used to call “best practices?”

It increasingly seems to me that we have all the tools we need. Bloom’s taxonomy, questioning strategies, concept based learning, the teaching-learning cycle of assess, teach, experiment, assess, etc. I know the terms for these concepts and strategies varies, but the application does not. The application is as old as the allusion in Google’s research project: Aristotle. Or older even. I really do think education is more about how individual teachers connect and get individual students “there” (there being that “deeper,” epiphany-laden place…or Plato’s allegory for education: the cave—my other theory is that our job is just to keep leading students out of cave after cave after cave and to learn to see right alongside them as we move forward).

I don’t think there is a panacea. What if professional development took a deep breath and just let teachers do what they know how to do? What if pro-d just started pointing out things teachers are doing well? What if pro-d (and those that oversee it and evaluate teachers) practiced being good coaches, listening well, making sure teachers felt safe, supported, and heard? If we practiced this at the pro-d level nationally, state-wide, district by district, school by school, what would be the effect? Would it trickle down into the classroom and into the student’s lives?

My great concern is that studies like Google’s lead to a rash of “teaching empathy” lessons, where well-meaning educators explicitly teach soft skills. In my experience this is like explicitly teaching grammar. When I teach grammar in isolation, students become better grammarians, but not better writers. When I teach grammar in the context of the reading students engage with (no one better to teach complex sentences than David Foster Wallace), or in the context of their own writing, they become better writers. If we teach empathy in isolation of sympathetic characters, situations, or engaging details students might become better clinical psychologists (?) but not necessarily better practitioners of empathy in their daily or work lives. They need to experience it in realistic conditions.

I will put forth here that most teachers do this well already. I mean, those Google employees in the study are products of our school systems.  I believe teachers can focus on two primary things: 1) make students feel safe, 2) challenge them with rich content.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed offers a good list of the conditions ideal for learning: awareness of the subject matter, interest, motivation, relevance, engagement, reinforcement, and support. All seven of these are created naturally in a safe environment with rich content. I don’t intend to sound reductive, as this simple focus is extremely difficult. What could be more important?

Leveraging Technology: Support vs Distraction

Our phones are powerful tools.

They are computers in our pockets more powerful than most of the science fiction I read or watched growing up ever conceived of. Even Star Trek the Next Generation had stacks of iPadish computers full of data on the Captain’s desk—each only held so much data. Now, something a little larger than a deck of playing cards holds or has access to more data than the entire ship they flew in threw galaxies.

I love technology. I combined my English major with a computer science minor and assumed it would be a practical and useful piece of my education. It largely has. Most of what I learned is outdated now, but the minor taught me how to think in different ways and provided me a comfort with technology in general. I learned quickly that technology’s broad offerings could distract me easily and therefore made a personal mantra: technology must support what I’m doing not distract me from it.

Humans are highly prone to distraction. Recent brain science shows regions light up and fire when we are distracted by multiple stimuli, and that concentration uses glucose at different levels, and is thus more effort and exhausting. It makes sense that we, especially teenagers, would choose distraction over concentration, even to our own productive detriment.

I keep thinking of the Jimmy Kimmel sketch in 2015 where Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future character holds a smartphone and says, “This tiny supercomputer must allow astrophysicists to triangulate…” and Jimmy Kimmel interrupts to say, “no, we use it to send little smiley faces to each other.”

My teaching has always involved technology. The only room I’ve taught in in 14 years without a set of computers is my first, I’ve taught with a smartboard for nearly a decade, I keep my curriculum as public as I can (minding copyright) on my website (which is also my plan book) so students and parents have continual access, I’ve used online classroom environments, and I’ve required students to turn in papers or projects digitally.

Ironically, as my district (and most surrounding districts and the national educational conversation) adopts and repeats the phrase, “leverage technology,” I’ve found myself pulling back from using technology. My mantra has remained the same: technology must support and not distract, but my experience and observations in the classroom lead me to believe technology does not agree. It seems more and more that technology is inclined, and even designed, to distract and not support productive work or learning.

Tech insiders seem to agree. The glamour and glitz and impressive largeness of technology continues to dazzle society. Many parents, teachers, community members I know and work with believe in technology with a faith I find confusing. I’m sure this post will garner me the label of luddite, etc. But I don’t use social media (in any form) because it is a black hole of distraction for me. It keeps me from the things I value: my students, my family, good literature, the immediate world around me. I know it is the great connector for many people, but for me I’ve never felt more superficial and isolated than when I followed my graduate school cohort to Facebook. Turns out pictures of meals are boring no matter who posts them. I stuck with letter writing (letter emailing). I recognize this is a personal choice, and not one made by the majority of culture.

But I am not a luddite. I use a computer and smartphone every day. I teach fully online classes at my community college. But I do believe that if educators use technology such as this nature sound map (recently promoted by my district), and never take students outdoors (even in urban centers) to listen and categorize and be present in the actual world, not just the virtual, we risk doing serious damage.

As Marshall Mcluhan said, “the medium is the message.” This is not a bad/critical/negative thing. But it becomes dangerous when forgotten. Shouldn’t part of the conversation (at least) center around deciding what technology best serves our educational outcomes? Maybe it is for many, but in my experience the devices eclipse the outcomes, and I increasingly find students struggle to use devices without distraction, and I find I turn to it less and less for lessons, despite being asked to include it more often.

The Discomfort of Learning—Plagiarism and Consequences

Recently students in a non-English language arts class turned in research papers worth a high percentage of their grade. Scoring the papers, their teacher found rampant plagiarism ranging from improper citing of sources to blatantly copying and pasting paragraphs of text from online sources without any citation at all.

My colleague who I will dub—Attentive-Responsible-Teacher (or Art)—followed our school’s handbook in regards to plagiarism. Art gave each student a zero on their paper, wrote up disciplinary referrals, and set parameters for students to try again. Because no one blatantly took an entire paper from another source and attempted to pass said paper off as their own, this teacher wanted students to learn from their mistake and have a chance to try again (at a 30% reduction).

Some parents and students came unglued.

Around 25% of the class had plagiarized sections in their papers and, according to Art, the responses from students ranged from taking full responsibility; to acknowledging poor note-taking strategies which led to the problem passages; to I never learned this.

After a flurry of emails, meetings, conferences and phone calls Art contacted me, as the English Department Chair, to clarify a few things.

Some students and parents argued their miss-cited papers landed in a gray area. That miss-citing sources is not the same as plagiarism. This is euphemism. Plagiarism, defined, is representing someone else’s words, image, etc. as one’s own. If a student includes a quote verbatim from a text without quote marks, they are graphically indicating those words are their own. Plagiarism.

It might be an honest mistake without mal-intent, but it is nonetheless a serious error deserving consequences. I spoke with a parent who felt the students should get to re-write the paper and still earn 100%, claiming that would make it a learning opportunity and not punishment. This contributed to an over-arching theme emerging from the conversations with parents and administrators: the students didn’t know they were plagiarizing so they can’t be punished for plagiarizing.

Of course they can. Just as I can get a speeding ticket when unaware of how fast I was driving, inadvertent plagiarism is not really a thing, but a rhetorical nicety created by parents and students to avoid the feeling of shame being called out as plagiarizers.  A natural human reaction.

Then it hit me, this situation was less about academic integrity than it was about failure. They failed something in such a way as to tarnish both their academic record (temporarily) and their personal integrity (also temporary, but I suspect it does not feel temporary).

From my teacher’s perspective, the academic learning opportunity is pretty clear. I hope they have a clearer sense of what constitutes academic plagiarism, and acts of academic plagiarism carry serious consequences (here a slight grade reduction, at University expulsion is on the list).

I also understand students and parents reacting to the culturally inherent fear of failure. The fact is, for learning to take place it must be uncomfortable and we must fail. As teachers, our job is not to make it more comfortable, but to respect students enough to walk them into discomfort, and not leave them there completely alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever come across for education, or for life, is from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho! where his characters face continual abstract struggle: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This advice applies to teachers and students alike. There are all kinds of failure, and when it comes to learning, it is necessary. The reality is teachers and students (and even parents) sometimes have to sit in discomfort for any development to take place. We all have to try again and continually attempt to fail better.