Academic Skills: Why Should We Teach Them

In the late 90’s when the skills agenda was all the rage in the UK, I was tasked to develop a skills program. At the time they were key skills, and they were slowly transformed into employability skills. I don’t think anyone cared what they were called, they were all the same thing.

According to the skills agenda, the best way to teach the key skills was to embed skills into the curriculum for the students to acquire. As I went to workshops, seminars, conferences etc. etc. etc., I found that the number one way to meet the skills agenda was to embed the skills into the students’ classes. As a lecturer, you require the students to give a talk as an assessment in a class, and you then tick off the oral communication skill (one-off embedding). Writing an essay counts as teaching student how to write (written communication). The other, less popular, but still fashionable way to meet the agenda is to, run a key skills class for all students in their first year, and they then have the necessary skills to succeed at university (and hence, life).

Both of these approaches are phony, for entirely different reasons. Giving someone the experience of doing something once in a class (oral presentation) does not constitute teaching, and skills are, by their very definition, something that you need to initially acquire at some baseline level, and then improve on over time. With all of the skills, including the skill to think, there is no teaching, just make the students do something once and they then have it.

By the same token, having a single class in the first year that covers a wide range of skills does not mean that you are skilled at anything, it means that you have barely begun acquiring a skill at some baseline level. Nobody (except 16-year-olds) would argue that taking driver’s ed and passing a drivers test makes anyone a skilled driver. Like any skill (including academic skills), the real skill of driving is acquired over time, after having driven for years.

Skill development is something that must be explicitly taught and then practiced over and over again in a focused way. It takes time and energy. How many lecturers will tell their students that they must give an oral presentation and then wonder why they aren’t very good at it. How many classes give students the opportunity to speak (or write, or think) over and over while providing help and guidance along the way so that the students can improve. I know that you can’t because you have too much stuff to cover. How can you take the time to improve the students’ academic skills when there is just so much curriculum to cover?

How can we expect our students to learn to engage in formal operational thinking (or more colloquially, think critically) if we never teach them how? I hear it all the time that students don’t come to university properly equipped with critical thinking skills and so it is the fault of the primary and secondary school system. When it comes to formal operational thinking, the developmental stage when people’s brains reach the developmental milestone that even begins to equip them with the ability to think critically is adolescence. Even then, by grade 12, only about 60% show any sign that they are actually able to simultaneously work with multiple abstract variables. This is what formal operational thinking is, and this is what critical thinking requires.

When students enter university there is still a sizable minority of who are unable to engage in critical thinking skills because their brains have not yet reached that developmental milestone. And then, rather than taking the time to teach them how, we assess them and complain about how unprepared they are when they arrive. One of the most frequent laments is, “Why don’t we raise the admission standards so we can get students who can think?”.

As a result, we give them content to memorize. Content is easier to prepare, easier to present, easier to test, and easier to grade. Forget the skills. Skills are difficult to prepare, difficult to present, difficult to test, and difficult to grade. And besides, the students like it that way. Give them content to regurgitate, plus a minuscule twist so you can say you are not one of those who just lectures, and everyone is happy. Besides, no one really knows how to do this stuff anyway, so just let it be.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?


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