Many high schools throughout the United States, in wealthy and in poor districts, participate in Model United Nations competitions. Through the programs, which may or may not be part of an academic course, students are energized to study international relations. The Model UN competitions are a good thing for many reasons, but especially because they help students practice many of the 10 Skill Sets as they work in teams,make presentations and learn to gather and apply knowledge.
However, these competitions have some negative effects. First, they make students think that the UN itself is more than what it actually is: a side show that generates media attention, and a tool for national leaders to gain support back home to rationalize or protest some unilateral act. Second, it enables students to think that they know a great deal about specific international issues when, in fact, they can’t possibly do any more than touch the surface. The more intelligent students may understand the limits of their knowledge but the majority of students do not. Third, participation in Model UN competitions encourages these impressionable high school students to seek a career at the UN or in international relations and lose site of the very important principle, “it’s the skills stupid.”
Nothing is perfect so I can live with the widespread use of Model UN in high schools. I would just like students to understand that the program is primarily a way to improve skills and not a career path.
Most educators use the term “critical thinking” as an important educational tool to complement the content goals of their course. This term, however, is too vague. To the English teacher, “critical thinking” may mean analyzing a piece of literature. To the math teacher, it may mean solving a word problem. To the history teacher, it may mean identifying the causes of an event. The lack of specificity has led me to the conclusion that, like such terms as the “national interest” or the “public good,” the meaning of “critical thinking” is in the eye of the beholder and not something to be used by people who claim to be “critical thinkers.”
Rather than “critical thinking,” I would prefer to use the terms in two of the 10 Skill Sets—”Asking and Answering the Right Questions” and “Solving Problems.” Under the first skill set is “detect nonsense, pay attention to detail, apply knowledge and evaluate actions and policies.” The “Solving Problems” skill set includes “identify problems,develop solutions and launch solutions.” The increased precision that comes from developing these two skill sets in the place of “critical thinking” will help students improve what people outside of academia usually mean by “critical thinking.”
I have written several blogs on the importance of Excel, but I haven’t focused on how we can help students develop their Excel skills. Here’s an idea for coaches of high school athletes: Require student athletes to create an Excel spreadsheet where the columns are practice days and the rows are practice drills, weight amount and reps, and time spent practicing. Then ask your athletes to create a trend line graph for each variable to show their progress.
Not only would this improve Excel skills, it would introduce the very important skills of evaluation and problem solving based on what they do with this information. Student athletes that I know tend to perform better on many of the 10 skill sets such as taking responsibility and working directly with people than students who do not participate in school athletic programs. Adding Excel practice will give them an even greater advantage on and off the field. Student athletes already know “it’s the skills stupid” in their sports. They just need to be pushed to be more analytical so they can apply Excel to their school work and jobs.
A teacher once told me he never gives students deadlines for papers at the beginning of the course because commitments like assemblies, pep rallies, school trips, AP exams, etc. make it difficult for students to meet them. It is because of this chaos that long-term deadlines are important from the get-go. For one, deadlines help students improve theirtime management skills. In the real world, commitments pop up too, some even more demanding than a high school bake sale, but this doesn’t excuse a professional from keeping a deadline. When college professors or employers give students and workers a deadline, they expect them to meet it—no exceptions. This teacher was saying that mandatory school activities disrupt schedules and create stress, but modeling skills is no picnic. In fact, though it may be stressful, keeping himself accountable to these deadlines is a prime example for this students. While he might have to work harder and possibly encounter aggravating situations, setting deadlines will significantly improve his students’ time management skills. As the teacher, he should set long-term deadlines, expect his students to meet them, and consider himself an example in doing so.
As I noted in my previous blog, it is important that any list of skills uses language that students, parents and employers would use when they talk to each other. I also noted the contrast between the terms used in our 10 skill sets and terms used by government officials, professional educators and academics. As skills trainers, teachers need to have students take responsibility for developing their skills, but in order to do so, students must be able to understand the terms used. Since “taking responsibility” is the first of the 10 skill sets, keeping students in the dark about skills they need to develop does not make sense. If students understand what they are supposed to be learning, they will be more motivated to learn it.
Some of you old-timers know about SCANS but the rest of you may not. SCANS stands for Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills produced by the Secretary of Labor under Bush (I). It provided a list of skills similar to my 10 Skill Sets. As you can see by this document prepared by Ron Spadafora, Superintendent of Schools for Oneida school district in Central, New York, SCANS is very similar in content. Unlike the products of the Federal and state Departments of Education, it is not full of jargon. It was an integral part of another Bush (I) initiative, School of Work, which never made a broad impact on mainstream high school education.
I love SCANS not only because its main point is “it’s the skills stupid,” but also because it is concrete and jargon-free. It is written as much to teachers and labor department administrators as it is to students and employees. For example, the Georgia Career Center has a list of skills clearly written to educational professionals. It uses terms like “situational skills” as a category that includes the skill “stress tolerance” and avoids the highly generalized skill terms like “cooperation” and “critical thinking.” More on this in the next blog.
I know I don’t have to tell teachers how their job is made more difficult by the educational fad-machine which has brought us, over the last twenty years, character education, diversity training, anti-bullying campaigns, SCANS, school to work and 21st Century Skills. The most common foundation for all of these fads is “skills.” This is obvious from the last three mentioned, but it is also true for the first three. Many of the skills in the 10 Skill Sets apply. Wouldn’t students achieve the goals of character education, diversity training and anti-bullying if they were motivated, ethical, effective at one-on-one communication, able to build good relationships, work in teams, lead effectively, detect nonsense, evaluate actions and policies, and problem solve? When one of these fads comes along, you may want to change your rhetoric and use different examples. If you are a skills trainer, however, you won’t have to change what you do in class. You may not even have to attend professional training days on the new fad. Well, at least we could hope!
Teachers as skills trainers should always ask themselves two key questions: Is what I am doing helping students develop skills? and What school policies help students improve their skills? That brings mean to the tendency of most school administrators to use the PA system without warning whenever they feel like it and to allow students to give mini-announcements about a blood drive, the next school play or an upcoming basketball game. On the one hand, this practice sends some very bad messages about time management, communications and respect for others. On the other hand, one could argue that chaos from outside forces is a way of life, and students should learn to stay focused in the face of disorder. The reality is that students don’t listen to the PA announcements, and it becomes a time out from learning.
My last blog discussed the tendency of some of my young alums in Teach For America trying to motivate their students by making college look like the end goal of K-12 education. A charter school in Indianapolis, Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, has a big sign in front of the school, and a statement on its website that says “college or die.” After seeing this, I started thinking about how to motivate students without overselling college as the path to career salvation, especially for those who hate school and have little family support forcing them to put their nose to the academic grindstone.
I think the “Skills Pays the Bills” message would work better especially for teenage students. “Skills Pays the Bills” doesn’t preclude college, and it encourages all post-secondary educational opportunities. Money as the goal is as tangible as it gets, and it would emphasize the need for the 10 Skill Sets. It is more focused than using college as motivation which is a mixed bundle of learning for its own sake, enjoying sports and partying until you drop. For those who object to the mercenary tone of the message, the college-for-all mantra is very similar. Just because the Teach for America crew and the rest of the educational establishment went to college is not a good enough reason for them to think the college-for-all message will or should work for all.
About 100 of my students over the past 20 years have entered Teach for America, which makes me proud on several levels. However, many of those students have one characteristic which I find objectionable, and I am hoping that one day TFA will figure out how to motivate their recruits without using the college-for-all mantra. Here is a typical excerpt from a recent email from one of my alums asking for Syracuse University items to decorate her classroom:
“One strategy to get [our students to improve academically] is first investing the students in that same dream we have for them.What is college like? Why do I want to go there? This year, I hope to decorate the kindergarten classroom with banners, pendants, flags, and jerseys representing the college that opened so many doors for me. Our kindergarten class will be referred to as ‘Syracuse University Class of 2028.’ They know that I will be visiting each of them at their college graduations from some of the best schools in the country.”
Here is what I wrote back:
“As you know, I find this pitch very disturbing for several reasons. First, the goal should be that students have a viable career path, and then have available to them a variety of post-secondary opportunities. The term ‘college’ doesn’t necessarily work for this broader perspective. Second, it assumes that students don’t hate school so much when they are told to go for another four years, they are deterred rather than motivated. Idealizing college with SU paraphernalia may make getting there look like a blast rather than a very difficult road. Third, just because you got a lot out of college does not mean the majority of students do. You should think about your students developing skills as the goal of what you are doing, rather than having them graduate from ‘the best schools in the country.’”
College should not be the primary incentive used to motivate students to work hard in school. It doesn’t work for many students, regardless of whether they reside in poverty-stricken areas or wealthy areas. It ignores the main message that “it’s the skills stupid.” More on this in my next blog.