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At St. George’s boys’ school in Vancouver, there is a diverse range of students, including boarders from 20 countries.

St. George’s School

Boarding schools today are plugging the soft skills. Strong academics are not enough.

Private schools are increasingly interested in instilling more co-operative kinds of leadership and team-building traits, creating environments for boarders in which these are ingrained in every aspect of student life.

Yet with this new focus on emotional intelligence and social literacy, the soft skill sets deemed so necessary in today's workplace, are schools putting a new kind of pressure on students so that they feel the need to fake those skills to fit in?

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Boarding school administrators don't think so.

At St. George's School in Vancouver, much of this comes down to the diversity of the student body, which requires understanding in working together. St. George's is an urban, private boys school in Vancouver, with 1,100 young students. Of those, 120 are boarders from 20 countries.

Teachers at the school focus often on group projects and team-building in the classroom, with students evaluated not just on their learning, but on their process of learning, said Gordon Allan, director of admissions. Students are guided in teamwork, and even during the admission interview, applicants are put into problem-solving teams and administrators observe how they work with others.

The feedback "is what develops leadership from within. That's the expression we use," Mr. Allan said. "Leadership isn't a course in the curriculum. It is the curriculum."

As Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, an associate professor in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), said, personality skill sets are emphasized in the private school context because "part of what it means to be excellent is to be excellent at a lot of different things," he said.

Yet Dr. Gaztambide-Fernandez, whose book The Best of the Best is a multiyear study of students at a boarding school in New England, noted that this can have some less desired results, too.

He found that students he interviewed during his research told him about being good at adapting to the high demands put on them by doing just enough to get by. It's the ability to fake it when necessary – becoming good at appearing like they belonged to meet everyone's expectations.

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"It's about charisma. It's about developing the skills to appear charismatic, to appear that you know what people need."

This is not to say, however, he emphasized, that most students in boarding schools don't work hard. Many indeed do perform well above expectations. It's just that exceedingly high expectations for boarders can sometimes garner certain coping responses.

Isabel Thomas, a Grade 12 student at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., said she can understand this sense of "fake it until you make it," as any student in any school would. But she said that it's not just about trying to meet expectations. It's about the whole collaborative environment.

"I think that's the environment they're trying to foster here, of wanting [you] to be a leader and wanting to be someone who volunteers," she said. "I know for me, in Grade 9 and 10, it was more, okay, this is what's expected of me. By Grade 11 and 12, I'm more, I want to help out and I want to do [school] spirit and I want to be a part of the community."

And these are the qualities seen as crucial.

The U.S. National Education Association even codifies it as the four C's for 21st century learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

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"All of those elements are elements of leadership. If you're looking at 21st century education in its real sense, those are the things that are being built right into the curriculum," said Joe Seagram, headmaster at King's-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S.

King's-Edgehill is an interesting example of a school in which traditional leadership skills are strongly built into the environment, given that students must participate in Army Cadets, with all its hierarchies and ranks. Yet Mr. Seagram stresses that this instills the importance of service to the larger group.

"To me, leadership is absolutely stuff that is taught," Mr. Seagram said.

But "rather than just bark orders and yell, you're taught how to reason and to ask."

Ridley's headmaster Ed Kidd agreed. "They are living and flourishing in a 24-7 community of adults and peers. And so what happens is that they learn to negotiate relationships. They learn to resolve conflicts. They develop very strong communications skills. They develop collaboration skills and teamwork skills. It's the water we swim in here," he said.

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