I recently had the opportunity to attend a large networking event with business leaders from my community. When I asked them what we (the school system) could be doing to better prepare students for their workplaces, I was not surprised to learn that employers are less concerned about a potential employee's academic preparation but care more about their "employability" skills.

Employers want to know how well potential employees will work on a team. They want to know that these applicants have great communication and problem-solving skills. They are curious to what degree new employees will have the grit and determination necessary to persevere through a situation and see it to a resolution.

If schools are to truly prepare their students for their future, these noncognitive skills must be developed, refined and assessed in much the same way cognitive academic skills are.

Depending on the school and the state, these skills go by different names, including 21st-century skills, employability skills, soft skills, academic behaviors and work study practices and/or dispositions. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to these simply as work study practices.

The New Hampshire Department of Education took an early lead in 2014 by releasing their own state-level work study practices. Their work was based on a 2013 U.S. Department of Education study focused on the promotion of grit, tenacity and perseverance. The study concluded that noncognitive abilities "are essential to an individual's capacity to strive for and succeed at long-term and higher-order goals, and to persist in the face of the array of challenges and obstacles encountered throughout schooling and life."

New Hampshire settled on these four work study practices:

  • Communication: I can use various media to interpret, question and express knowledge, information, ideas, feelings and reasoning to create mutual understanding.
  • Creativity: I can use original and flexible thinking to communicate my ideas or construct a unique product or solution.
  • Collaboration: I can work in diverse groups to achieve a common goal.
  • Self-direction: I can initiate and manage my learning, and demonstrate a "growth" mindset, through self-awareness, self-motivation, self-control, self-advocacy and adaptability as a reflective learner.

Jonathan Vander Els, executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI) wrote about his work as an elementary school principal to tackle work study practices in his competency-based school. In the article, he detailed how his teachers broke down their Responsive Classroom CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy and Self-Regulation) behaviors to be assessed in each student through performance assessments with clearly defined rubrics.

Meanwhile, Next Generation Learning Challenges has been busy developing a tool known as MyWays, an initiative spearheaded by NGLC's Deputy Director Andy Calkins.

The tool is designed to help educators define success for students, design learning to directly support that definition, and gauge student progress throughout the learning process. The MyWays tool shows promise as a way for educators to develop a comprehensive instruction and assessment system for both cognitive and noncognitive skills.

Earlier this month, Education Week guest blogger Christina Russell answered the question of how countries around the world are building education systems that support the development of work study practices in her article "Developing 21st Century Skills: International Strategies." Educators from places like Denver, Hiroshima, New York City, Seattle, Seoul, Singapore and Shanghai, in a summit held in China, discovered similarities in their efforts to develop policies and practices to guide the cultivation of these types of skills in both school settings as well as extracurricular settings.

A key takeaway from the discussion was the importance of "ensuring that the rationale, partnerships and resources that are at the foundation of the system reflect the local policy and cultural context." The discussion may pave the way for work study skills to play a larger role in school systems globally.