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Some skills aren’t easily taught, but they’re essential as students leave school and enter the global workforce

15 skills students need for success — and how to teach them

Some skills aren’t easily taught, but they’re essential as students leave school and enter the global workforce

21st century skills. Social and emotional learning skills. “Soft” skills. Whatever you choose to call them, there is a set of skills that are essential for success in school, work, and life — and yet teaching and assessing these skills in a formal, structured way can be challenging.

According to a report from McKinsey & Co., the global workforce will undergo a dramatic shift as a result of automation. The need for basic cognitive skills will decline by 15 percent over the course of this decade, while skills that can’t easily be replaced by computers —social and emotional skills such as leadership and empathy, and higher cognitive skills such as creativity and critical thinking — will be in high demand.

Related content: How gamification can improve schoolwide behavior

These are the skills we should be teaching in schools if we want to prepare students for the jobs of the future: skills that make us uniquely human, that differentiate us from machines. The ability to solve complex problems, adapt on the fly to rapidly changing circumstances, and dig deeper when the going gets tough, among others.

Honing these skills not only positions students for success in the workforce; it also prepares them to overcome adversity in school and life. It makes them more complete human beings who are able to thrive in any number of of situations and cultivate rich, rewarding relationships with others.

Schools often struggle to teach and assess these foundational skills. However, working with researchers at Kansas University’s Achievement and Assessment Institute, we’ve developed a framework for doing just that. What’s more, we can teach these critical skills in a way that deeply resonates with students — by having them play popular video games like League of Legends or Overwatch.

Gaming is actually a fitting platform for students to learn the core skills for success. Many of the attributes they’ll need to excel in school or the workforce — teamwork, problem solving, and so on — correlate with success in the game world and other arenas.

We’ve identified 33 discrete skills that we can teach, measure, and develop through game play. From this list, we chose 15 of the most relevant skills that apply to gaming, and we’ve grouped them into five different categories. They are…

• Assertiveness: Expressing one’s feelings and needs directly, while maintaining respect for others.
• Decision making: Judiciously evaluating all available information to arrive at an optimal way of thinking or acting.
• Resource management: Taking inventory of, tracking, and actively being aware of available resources in order to be better prepared.

• Collaboration: Working together with others to achieve a goal desired by all.
• Conflict resolution: The reduction of discord between individuals or groups through the use of active strategies such as negotiation, bargaining, or compromise.
• Adaptability: The ability to adjust one’s emotional response in an optimal manner for a given situation, successfully recover from disadvantageous circumstances, or adjust positively to change.

• Active listening: A process of listening to another person closely and attentively, and asking questions as needed, to understand the other person’s message and emotions.
• Empathy: The capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.
• Friendliness: The quality of appearing likeable and trustworthy to other people and demonstrating caring and respect for them.

Problem solving
• Creativity: The ability to produce and develop original work, theories, techniques, or thoughts.
• Critical thinking: The process of conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information in an objective manner in order to arrive at a conclusion or form a judgment.
• Goal setting: The process of identifying something you want to achieve and methodically planning the steps you can take to attain this goal.

• Grit: The ability to persist in the face of difficult challenges, resulting in successful goal attainment.
• Ownership: Taking responsibility for one’s actions or contributions to a particular outcome.
• Self-control: The ability to control oneself mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally, especially in difficult or oppositional situations.

When we introduce these skills to students, we typically start with the skills related to character. We talk about what “character” means within the context of gaming: how students pick the character they’re going to be in the video game, and how each character has certain skills, strengths, and weaknesses. To succeed within the game, students have to understand their character’s attributes and also those of the other characters they’re playing with. This is how we get them to think about their own personal skills and attributes, and we talk about what “character” means outside the world of gaming.

Once students have an understanding of the skills that correlate with success, they break into teams to play a game. Immediately after the game is over, students are asked to rate themselves and their teammates on how well they applied these various skills within the game.

This self-reflection is very powerful, and it has a huge effect on how students approach the game the next time they play. It’s fascinating to see how quickly their behavior changes from one game to the next as they consciously try to apply certain skills.

We use a series of algorithmic models to measure each student’s skills and track their growth over time, based on their own and their peers’ assessments — and we’re seeing tremendous growth in the skills that matter most for success.

At Jane Addams High School in Los Angeles, students initially mistook assertiveness for being rude. Through successive game playing, they had a massive breakthrough, realizing that rudeness and assertiveness are two different things. “I feel as if I did even better at this game and was able to assert myself even more without being rude,” one student wrote in a self-reflection.

In the Lennox School District, an urban district outside Los Angeles, 95 percent of students in a pilot project improved key skills. In a striking display of ownership, one fourth-grade girl who was the leader of her team lost her self-control during game play and wasn’t able to direct her team. At the end of the game, she stood up and said, “I just want to apologize to my team because I forgot to be positive, and it lost us this game. I know we can do it, and I’ll be more positive next time. Thank you guys for supporting me.”

Focusing on grades and test scores alone is a very one-dimensional way to assess students’ abilities; it doesn’t provide much insight into how we can help them flourish. Schools need to become proficient at teaching and measuring the skills that underlie success in any endeavor. These 15 skills are an excellent start, and gaming marks an ideal platform for learning them.

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