Skills Over Content?

How to Effectively Make Skills a Priority for Learning

I’m hard-pressed (and I’m sure you are too) to find a single learner or educator who still believes classrooms should sound like lecture halls and look like parishioners listening to the daily lesson.

Lecturing was an instructional practice that grew from the belief in content over application.

Today’s classrooms are more student-centered and focus on learners actively doing and creating. And doing means application of skills.

  • How do we effectively teach skills?
  • What skills do students need to learn?
  • How can teachers and curriculum designers plan for effective skills instruction?

In this post, I’ll share:

  • 3 frameworks that prioritize skill sets over content knowledge.
  • Research in support effective skills instruction.
  • 5 questions to help teams create a skills-focused instructional program.
Skills Needed for the Workplace in the 21st-Century
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3 Frameworks For Future-Ready Skills

In his recent blog post for Solution Tree, Dr. Chris Weber (follow him @WeberEducation) expertly outlined a series of skills required for learners to succeed in our technology-driven future. Here’s a lengthy quote from his post:

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.

Research for Effective Skills Instruction

The research is rich with data in support of particular approaches to learning skills. A few common denominators are:

  1. Effective skills instruction is focused on students actively doing (read more here).
  2. Game-based instruction (research here) can be very effective for learning skills.
  3. Struggling students benefit from high-level inferential instruction.

There’s no magic format for effective skills instruction, but here are a few best practices to guide instructional design:

  • Integrating language-rich experiences (aka lots of reading, writing, talking, listening).
  • Approach skills as processes that start in a messy state and slowly refine with subsequent learning sessions (i.e. reading requires rereading, writing as a process, the process of scientific investigation).
  • Spiraling (here’s my work on spiraling reading instruction).
  • Scaffolding from simple to complex – from much support to independent application.

5 Questions for Skills-Based Instruction

These five questions can become a springboard for teams as they create skills-focused lessons and units of study.

1) What Are My Driving Questions?

Edutopia has a great article on designing effective skills-based instruction. The recommendation is for teachers and curriculum designers to begin with Driving Questions.

And effective driving question guides students as they apply skills:

Remember the project shouldn’t be trying to solve the world’s problems. Instead, it should be a focused action, and focused inquiry; the goal is to ensure the students are focused. The teacher needs to help focus the teaching and learning, and the driving questions help with that.

Andrew Miller (read more here)

2) How Will We Measure Impact?

It isn’t enough for collaborative teams to ask, How will we know if they learned it? Instructional teams must also ask, How will we know our impact?

The difference may appear subtle, but it’s massive in terms of refining effective instructional practices. Here’s a quote from the Mafost Blog:

Passing rates will not and can not tell you your impact.

Your impact is the combined effects and correlations of your efforts and work…Passing rates. Single scores. These tell performance. Not impact.

These metrics give false positives and false negatives. They have a tendency to cause the wrong groups to congratulate themselves and affirm the wrong practices.

Impact, Not Just Performance

3) What “Soft Skills” Integrate Well Into This Unit?

These skills really aren’t soft. We’re learning that they are more and more important to the successes of companies and careers. When Business Insider interviewed 2000 businesses and managers, they discovered the following as the top soft skills needed in the current workforce:

  1. Leadership
    1. Body Language
    2. Strategic Thinking
    3. Informal Leading
  2. Communication
    1. Influence
    2. Feedback
  3. Collaboration
    1. Listening
    2. Building Relationships
    3. Managing Others
  4. Time Management
    1. Habits
    2. Delivering

4) How Will We Build Autonomy Into This Lesson/Unit?

Skills are more than rote mimicry. The work of 20th-century psychologist William Glasser articulated the need and benefits of giving students autonomy and choice in their learning.

Autonomy builds the metacognitive and strategic aspects of skills.

When a student has to choose the path to take in completing a project, a variety of skill sets come into play. When a sophomore chooses which unit of study to start first, that student is employing decision-making and critical thinking.

5) How Will We Embed Spiraling?

Skills are not mastered in the first or second attempt. In many cases, they aren’t mastered in a single month or semester. This is why spiraling is essential.

Originally, a concept from the work of Jerome Bruner, spiraling allows students multiple opportunities to apply skills, receive feedback, and try again. The essence of effective spiraling is not getting it right. It’s really about getting better – refining and revising the skills.


I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please pass it along or add your own thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


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