Is skills teaching a thing? - repurposing the skills agenda

For a long time now education has been accused of pandering to the factory model by encouraging the transfer of knowledge but to do so in ways that encourage a compliancy that was arguably needed for the workplace of its time. Many of the arguments for teaching skills come from the fact that the workplace is changing and increasingly employers say that they are looking for a particular set of skills. Each year several lists are published as which skills are top of the most wanted lists.


BUT, are we building skills because they are functionally important and prepare students for the world of work? It would be ironic to suggest we only work on skills because the factory has changed.


OR are we building skills because they shape who we are and how we can contribute to a better society?


This leads us to ask ourselves, when thinking about implementing progression in the ATL skills, “why we are doing it?”. This is essential and best done as a faculty as it frames the nature of the venture. Are we teaching skills for improving a student’s functional competence or it the goal bigger than that? As Simon Sinek has said (though he may have been quoting Herb Kelleher):


I might argue that teaching skills is a route to teaching attitude. In IB the attitude we are aiming for is International Mindedness (and all that comes with it) making a skill like dialectic thought (an identified PYP skill where we acknowledge the opinion of others) really rather important.


Further to this a skilled person tends to be more proactive. We need this right now. Greta Thurnberg needed her skill set to be the change maker she is.


Even futurist Gerd Leonhard argues that we need to teach the skills that make us human:




So then, we work on the skills to release students to being proactive changemakers whether in grand global ways like Greta or in more individual and personal ways through the change of a habit. Skills enable AGENCY and they lead to ACTION.


Generic skills and/or domain (subject) specific skills?


There are some (John Sweller and David Geary in particular) who suggest that we have evolved our generic skills but these are basic. They propose that these skills need not be taught because they are naturally learnt (through evolutionary pressure) and can be assumed to be present. Examples are: learning to communicate and work together as a team. In the same way they argue basic knowledge also naturally formed. They call these basic skills Biologically Primary skills and the knowledge formed Folk Knowledge.


Both, they argue, are very resistant to change and both are overcome by teaching explicit domain knowledge. For example, they argue that more sophisticated skills are reliant on taught content and are domain specific. This comes from the discovery that whilst grandmaster chess players brains are different to novices this change of brain structure only really helps them be better at chess and does not necessarily to make them overall better thinkers (they discovered that actually the brain growth area is in the region of memory, that decisions on best moves to take is informed by a huge memory bank of possible moves and chess piece layouts). They argue therefore to not focus on teaching skills but to teach knowledge, both to develop domain specific skills and also to overcome folk knowledge, by creating a large memory reservoir of facts.


Whilst I do not agree with their conclusion, we must take note of the evidence. I think that we must question the assumption that skills are only generic and transferrable, but I also believe that these generic skills can be taught beyond an innate competency. We can for example learn how to cooperate better or communicate with each other better. In fact, I interpret the evidence to show the necessity of teaching generic skills explicitly because if we don’t they will not change. I think the insight on some skills being domain specific is also helpful; critical thinking in Maths IS different to critical thinking in Science, History or Art.


What this means is that schools should take the time in their faculty to consider what skills are generic (and therefore taught for transference) and sought after by all subjects in a consistent manner, e.g. learning how to do a presentation. To aid transfer, these skills should be approached in a consistent manner and language.


For both the generic and the domain specific skills consider what progression in that skill looks like and encourage students to reflect on their usage of that skill.


This means that school leaders should:

  • ensure that teachers understand the disciplinary and generic skills and their role in the programme

  • help to decide how the disciplinary skills can be addressed by subject-specific curricula but also how to support students growth in the generic skills

  • develop a plan for the vertical articulation of skills (both disciplinary and generic) across all years of the programme

  • support teachers in developing teaching strategies for the honing of skills.\

How to articulate progress


Leaders have to think about how to express growth in skill competencies. There are a number of options here:

  • Competency expressed in terms of CONSISTENCY.

“Student can sometimes/usually/always use skill X.”

  • Competency expressed in terms of INDEPENDENCE.

“Student can with guidance/with reminders/alone/teach others use skill X.”

  • Competency expressed in terms of GENERIC COMPLEXITY.

“Student can use skill X in a simple/multi step/complex task”

  • Competency expressed in terms of SPECIFIC COMPLEXITY.

“Student can, in written communication, write in full sentences/ in paragraphs with clear focus / evaluate perspectives”


These each have their benefits but my personal favourite idea is:




Monitoring and Communicating Growth


Simply identifying the presence and use of identifiable skills is not for me monitoring. Monitoring the growth of the skills in an individual links progress to the articulations you identitied above.


But how do we communicate this progress to parents and guardians?


I know of four useful possible strategies

  • Through garnering student reflections – best in a digital platform

  • Through working through a skills training programme – eg Callido

  • Badging accomplishments stored in a digital portfolio – see the work of the Badge Alliance or tagging accomplishments - eg ManageBac

Note: I did not include assessing and grading each skill because I find this too subjective and well grades don't work (see 3Rs and an E).


To conclude


Skills are valuable assets in any learning experience, give therefore considered thought as how you might articulate for students and their guardians what growth in these skills looks like.

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