Not Just the Facts: Why Focusing on Skills Is Better for Students and Educators

Sara Wicht, TT's senior manager for teaching and learning, participated in the ASCD Forum “Learning for All = Teaching for All." Read her contribution here!


Editor's note: This blog was orginally published on Inservice, the official blog of ASCD, and republished here with permission. It's part of the conversation around the ASCD Forum “Learning for All = Teaching for All.” To learn more about the forum, go here.   

The current public education landscape calls for big shifts in K–12 teaching and learning, and teachers are largely responsible for making them. Amidst the controversy over adoption of the Common Core State Standards and other state standards (high-stakes testing and performance-based pay are among the concerns), it can be easy to lose sight of the valid and necessary college- and career-readiness outcomes these standards are designed to achieve. Most critical among them? Mastery of skills over content. This is a necessary shift, despite the discomfort it might cause, and teachers need professional development to make it happen.

What’s the Discomfort?

Both novice and veteran teachers are accustomed to planning lessons and units around certain pieces of literature, scientific knowledge, math problems, or historical facts. Moving to a skills-based approach requires abandoning content we have been using for years. It requires rewiring the way we think about and map our scope and sequence and define student outcomes. It requires that we ask, “Is it more important that my students know the plot line to Lord of the Flies or that they are able to recognize and describe character development within a variety of texts?” Teachers need time and space with other teachers to adjust their approach to planning and to learn how and why emphasizing skills is a better way to meet the learning needs of all students.

Why Is It Important?

We’re working with the most diverse student population in the history of the United States. In the 2014–15 school year, the overall number of students of color surpassed the number of non-Hispanic white students in K–12 schools for the first time. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of schools across the country with homogeneous student populations (de facto segregation). These two changes in our schools’ demographics make it even more important to focus on skills students can apply in a variety of settings, for a variety of reasons, and with a variety of audiences. It also makes it even more crucial that teachers have the practical strategies and resources to expose students to a variety of content—content that is relevant to them—on their way to meeting skills-based academic goals.

Where to Start?

If students can Google it, don‘t teach it.

One of teachers’ biggest concerns is that they don’t have enough time for social-emotional learning, project-based tasks, arts, or play—or even to cover all the required academic content. They are constantly looking for ways to make their limited instructional time more efficient and effective while meeting the diverse ability levels in a single classroom.

One way to approach this is to apply the “can you Google it?” litmus test. Doing so can begin to help teachers recognize, prioritize, and unpack skills-based outcomes. If the outcome passes the test, here are just a few examples of possible next steps:

  • Look at the students in your classroom. Determine how the outcomes apply to your students’ authentic lived experiences.
  • List all the possible resources that could be used to teach the standard and help students achieve the outcome. Don’t be afraid to include resources you haven’t used before. It may be necessary to remain responsive while teaching a skill-based standard.
  • Pass some ownership for working toward mastery on to the students. Share the standard with them. Ask them what success would look like in their world.

From here, it becomes easier to see why it is less important to name all the elements on the periodic table (remember, we have Google for that) and more important to be able to talk about how the elements relate to one another. This type of teaching, learning, and assessment will be a shift for students, too, but it will be one that recognizes their identities and—ultimately—prepares them to meet challenges with thinking skills rather than rote recall.

In other words, it’s a shift toward success.

Want to join the 2016 ASCD Forum discussion? Here’s how:

  • The ASCD Forum group on the ASCD EDge social networking site is the main discussion platform. Educators can contribute blog posts about culturally responsive learning environments, pose questions to one another, or offer insight on message boards.
  • On Twitter, educators can use #ASCDForum to share perspectives and resources.
  • An in-person session of the ASCD Forum will take place at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show on Monday, April 4, from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.