Skills: Problem solving, critical thinking, literacy, creativity, accountability, productivity, social, communication

Skills Are as Important as (and May Be More Important than) Content

Teachers have been teaching what they’ve been asked to teach; the curriculum commonly taught, and that we expect students to learn, in classrooms today—for better or worse—reflects the standards in place up until 2010.

However, the policy documents, frameworks, and standards in place since 2010 are qualitatively distinct—and this is a very good thing. Depth and skills are increasingly emphasized and encouraged to be taught and learned.

This is necessary (see Marzano, Reeves, and Schmoker) for equity and the design and implementation of a guaranteed, viable curriculum, and this shift better aligns to the world in which we live and for which we are preparing students.

Pre-2010 guidance led us to:

  • Cover content, racing through textbooks in an impossible and misguided effort to get to everything.
  • Favor memorization and lower levels of learning.
  • Teach procedures, steps, algorithms, and shortcuts.
  • Assess using (only) selected-response items in a surface-level manner.

The Research on the Importance of Skills

The good news is that we know, more than ever, what to do. Consider these reports and research.

10 Categories of Essential Future-Ready Skills

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s (2016) research on essential future-ready skills led to their advocacy of ten categories of skills:

  1. Creativity and innovation
  2. Critical thinking and problem-solving
  3. Communication and collaboration
  4. Information and media literacy
  5. Technological literacy
  6. Flexibility and adaptability
  7. Initiative and self-direction
  8. Social and cross-cultural skills
  9. Productivity and accountability
  10. Leadership and responsibility

These are skills; skills that are content- and age-agnostic.

4 Categories of College and Career Readiness Skills

David Conley’s (2014) research led to his development of a framework for college and career readiness, defined within four categories:

  • Think: Students process, manipulate, assemble, reassemble, examine, question, look for patterns, organize, and present.
  • Know: Students possess foundational knowledge in core subjects.
  • Act: Students employ skills and strategies that enable them to exercise agency and ownership as they manage learning.
  • Go: Students develop skills to navigate college and career challenges.

Only one of the categories, Know, relates to academic knowledge. The others categories define skills: self-regulatory, metacognitive, and executive functioning.

Skills Most Needed in the Workplace

The Economist Group and Google’s (Tabary, 2015) survey of business leaders assessed the attributes most needed in the 21st century workplaces:

  • Problem-solving
  • Team working
  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Leadership
  • Literacy
  • Digital literacy
  • Foreign language ability
  • Emotional intelligence

Skills, and the application of knowledge, are reported to be more critical than academics.

Noncognitive Skills Data

The Hamilton Project and the Brookings Institute analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the Armed Forces Qualification Test, the Rotter Locus of Control scale, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale, and Deming’s social skills index. This research drew the following seven conclusions.

  • The US economy is demanding more noncognitive skills.
  • There are strong labor-market payoffs to cognitive and noncognitive skills.
  • The labor market increasingly rewards noncognitive skills.
  • Individuals in the bottom quartile of noncognitive skills are one-third as likely to complete a postsecondary degree as those in the top.
  • Noncognitive skill development improves achievement and reduces misbehaviors.
  • Preschool interventions emphasizing cognitive and noncognitive skill development have long-term economic benefits.
  • A teacher’s ability to improve noncognitive skills has more effect on graduation rates than does an ability to raise test scores.

The conclusions are clear: skills are as important as content. Skills may be more important than content. They are not, however, sufficiently present within academic curricula.

Curricular Frameworks

So, policy and research encourages skills; what about new curricular frameworks?

Common Core (or next-generation) Mathematics

It isn’t just about content standards with new mathematics standards. Skills (e.g., thinking, explaining, justifying, applying) are an integral part of teaching, learning, and assessing. These skills are represented by the Standards for Mathematics Practice:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  • Construct arguments and critique others
  • Model
  • Use tools
  • Attend to precision
  • Make use of structure
  • Express regularity in repeated reasoning

These skills are applied with all domains of mathematics, at all grade levels.

Common Core (or next-generation) English-Language Arts (ELA)

The same increased focus on skills applies in ELA:

  • Analyze complex texts with evidence
  • Produce clear and coherent writing appropriate to task, audience, and purpose
  • Construct arguments and critique others
  • Build and present knowledge by integrating, comparing, and synthesizing ideas
  • Build upon ideas and articulate clearly when collaborating
  • Communicate context specific messages
  • Use technology and digital media

Knowledge isn’t enough; students must go deeper; they must use their knowledge. And note the similarities of skills between the content areas. Skills are content agnostic.

Next-Generation Science Standards

New science standards are similarly multidimensional. In fact, the new science standards may make the most progressive leap toward skills, with Cross Cutting Concepts complementing Disciplinary Core Ideas (the content) and Science and Engineering Practices (the skills), listed here:

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  • Arguing with evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Educators are increasingly recognizing and responding to the fact that content is widely accessible; beyond knowing science facts, new standards require students to think and act like scientists—to employ the skills of a scientist.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

The newest of the curricular frameworks similarly and explicitly emphasize skills. Consider these following dimensions:

  • Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Applying concepts from civics, economics, geography, and history
  • Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

Three of these four dimensions are about using disciplinary concepts—about applying the skills of a historian or social scientist.

Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners

The most respected experts in the areas of motivation and the psychology of learning have synthesized research and designed a framework for essential behavioral skills necessary for success in school, college, career, and life:

  • Mindsets. Students would report:
    • “I belong in this academic community.”
    • “My ability and competence grow with my effort.”
    • “I can succeed at this.”
    • “This work has value for me.”
  • Social skills:
    • Interpersonal skills
    • Empathy
    • Cooperation
    • Assertion
    • Responsibility
  • Learning strategies:
    • Study skills
    • Metacognitive strategies
    • Self-regulated learning
    • Goal-setting
  • Perseverance:
    • Grit
    • Tenacity
    • Delayed gratification
    • Self-discipline
    • Self-control
  • Academic behaviors
    • Going to class
    • Doing homework
    • Organizing materials
    • Participating
    • Studying

Behavioral skills are critical. You’ll likely note that the critical skills identified by psychologists are represented within the skills within the frameworks for the four content areas above.

Putting It into Practice

We know what to do. We must now do it, with more frequency, consistency, and success. Here are a few new practices that the incredible educators with whom I am lucky enough to work have put in place:

  • Our district, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, from science to visual and performing arts, is revisiting and redesigning content areas and courses to favor depth over breadth, so that retention of knowledge improves, so that there is time for learning to be more active and for learners to be more empowered, and so that students have time and opportunities to apply skills.
  • Our secondary science teachers recognize that when prioritizing outcomes, it’s the Science and Engineering Practices—the skills—that are critical. The Disciplinary Core Ideas—the content—are the contexts within the skills are applied. It may not be necessary to cover all the content as if it is equally important; it is essential that students learn and have opportunities to apply all skills.
  • All teachers are regularly requiring students to explain and justify approaches and solutions within mathematics.
  • Our teachers of AP courses are eagerly following the College Board’s redesigns that will result in a greater emphasis on inquiry, reasoning, and communication skills and a better balance between breadth and depth. As we strive to increase equity and access, we are working to ensure that the sheer quantity of content to cover in advanced courses does not compromise the success of some students and limit the future success in specific disciplines of all students.

Since the shift toward common standards (initially at the state level) prompted by “A Nation at Risk,” this more recent shift toward skills applied to content as opposed to the simple acquisition of content knowledge may represent the most significant curricular change we’ve experienced in 35 years.

We all must make a commitment to thinking and doing differently in our teaching within content areas and courses so that our students are prepared for the realities and demands of today’s society and workplaces.

Chris Weber

Chris Weber, EdD, is an expert in behavior, mathematics, and response to intervention who consults and presents internationally to audiences on important topics in education.

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  1. Chris, this is an excellent compilation of frameworks for focusing on skills! I particularly like Conley’s 4 categories and wish we could incorporate the “act” and “go” pieces more into pre-secondary education. Thanks!