As most teachers and parents know, winning an ICAS medal means celebrating students’ academic triumphs on the international stage, in a similar way that a sports tournament does. What’s perhaps lesser known is that the very act of students taking part in ICAS builds what’s known as their “soft skills” – from planning, practising and studying right up to competition day itself.
Soft skills are essential interpersonal skills that make or break our ability to get things done. Soft skills have gone from being seen as an HR industry buzzword to essential qualification criteria for employers. Within this decade, two-thirds of all jobs will be centred on soft skills, according to research by Deloitte.
Even now, the three highest-priority skills that employers and professional development teams are focused are all soft skills, a key annual report by LinkedIn found.
A subsequent report also found that resilience is the number one skill for workplaces to focus on nurturing in these countries: US, Canada, France, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
It’s never been more timely to prepare your students to meet this future of work. Participating in ICAS provides several key opportunities to develop soft skills and help future-proof students’ employability.
First, let’s look more deeply at what soft skills actually are.
Soft skills vs hard skills: How do they differ?
In a workplace context, hard skills are knowledge-based, technical or specific skills acquired through education. This could be speaking another language, knowing how to use specific software or applying practices of mathematics and science as part of your day-to-day job description.
Soft skills – often grouped under “emotional intelligence” – are non-technical personal attributes that support our situational awareness and enhance our ability to get a task done. They affect how we work, whether autonomously or within a team environment.
They can include adaptability, leadership, communication and problem-solving as well as resilience, critical thinking, planning and attention to detail.
According to Dr Marion Steel, course director at the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University: “Soft skills affect every aspect of your career from the moment you start applying for jobs. They’re often unspoken, but all employers expect that you understand what they require in a work environment.”
Soft skills and ICAS
Armed with the knowledge that soft skills will safeguard students’ future employability, let’s drill down into how taking part in ICAS gives students the opportunity to hone these skills and helps prepare them for career success.
The literacy experts who develop the reading and writing tasks for the ICAS English and Writing assessments create tasks that challenge students to demonstrate a deep understanding of how to articulate and convey a specific message. Students must also do this within a short time period, encouraging them to develop instinctive skills in effectively getting their message across – essential to a broad spectrum of professions and successfully navigating a collegiate work environment.
Whatever their age and schooling stage, ICAS participants must flex their planning and prioritisation skills as part of their competition journey: from organising their own extra-curricular time at home in order to study and practise for ICAS, to figuring out a strategy for tackling each exam on the day – such as asking themselves: “Is there a question on a topic I know well that I can tackle first?”
3. Attention to detail
ICAS tests students’ ability to follow instructions and demonstrate their attention to detail, within a and environment of exam tension and time limits. Following instructions and reading questions thoroughly before responding reveals their attention to detail, and ability to avoid needless mistakes caused by rushing through the test. This is a critical skill in a workplace environment, with job advertisements frequently highlighting ‘attention to detail’ as essential criteria.
4. Critical thinking
No matter the subject, ICAS questions are specifically designed to assess a range of higher-order thinking, including critical thinking. Having worked with international curriculum and assessment expert Dr Karin Hess, the ICAS Assessments item writers for each subject use her Cognitive Rigour Matrix models to ensure each assessment tests a wide a range of higher-order thinking skills.
Accessing students’ higher-order thinking has a flow-on effect into solving problems, as they’re using this critical thinking to analyse a scenario presented in a question and making an informed decision about it. This applies not only to the ICAS questions themselves, but also to how students approach navigating their way through the series of questions.
Many students who participate in ICAS do so because they’re high-achievers who want to stretch their academic potential. Some of them may place pressure on themselves to succeed, so the act of participating in ICAS, and developing strategies to work through the lead-up to exam day and the exam itself, allows them to build up their resilience in a safe environment. What’s more, understanding that they’ve learned valuable self-management and strategic skills in the process, regardless of the outcome, is also the type of resilience that will serve them well in the competitive world of work.
While students can study, practise sample questions and even order past papers to prepare for ICAS, they also need to allow for the possibility of unexpected questions and curveballs in the actual exam. Being able to quickly identify the unforeseen, mobilise the knowledge they do have and adapt their approach accordingly, sets them up for being just as adaptable to unexpected situations and circumstances within a workplace.
Consider a leader in any environment: they’re individuals who are willing to put their hand up and take on something extra, not to tick a box but because they see genuine value in constantly striving for improvement. When stepping up to participate in ICAS, students demonstrate an aptitude for being the type of person who could become a leader in the future.
Winning merit awards and medals is a significant aspect of ICAS, because it allows high-achieving students to shine as they hit important academic goals and celebrates top-performers.
But knowing that ICAS can also help produce incredibly well-rounded students that have had the chance to grow and shape their increasingly important soft skills and possibly become leaders of the future makes for an even more compelling case to get involved.