Occasionally, especially when talking to educational pundits and college professors, I am told that I don’t think content or substance is important. These people are trying to pick a fight with me, but as Ben Franklin would say “avoid arguments because the winner will have an enemy for life, and the loser will be very angry.” Teachers who accept my challenge to be skills trainers need not change their content one iota. Substance, regardless of the discipline, can provide a major source of material on which students can practice the 10 Skill Sets. Many teachers see acquiring knowledge for its own sake as foundational. They are right, as long as they give skills a place in their assignments and classroom activities.
I have been working with several high schools over the past month as well as with an exciting new company that will be making available a Student Planner that promotes the10 Skill Sets. Out of these collaborations, a simple idea has developed for how to get students to understand that “it’s the skills stupid.” The different groups I have worked with each came to this idea independently, which makes me think it has potential. The idea is to designate a skill set for each of the 10 months of the school year. PSA announcements and bulletin board signs could be in place and changed each month reminding students about the importance of specific skill sets. Teachers could refer to it in class lectures and discussions as appropriate. Advisory classes, if they exist, could focus on it. More formal activities, like assignments and competitions exercising some of the skills in the skill set, could also be undertaken if teachers find them useful to teaching their content.
Even if nothing more than some exposure to the skill set is provided each month, the impact could be significant. Awareness for goal setting is the first step to learning.
And remember, “it’s the skills stupid.”
My August 6th, 2011 blog reported the results of a worldwide Excel competition in which a student from the UK won. Why did a student from the UK and not the US win? Not because American students are less competitive internationally on standardized tests, which is a frequent theme of politicians and professional educators. That theme is used to bash our educational system, and to raise money from those hoping to get more funding from the government and foundations. More likely, the reason for the success of a UK student is that she attended a community college where a Microsoft trainer offered course work. In most high schools, American students are rarely offered opportunities to acquire applied computer skills. A related article warns that while students are interested in social networking, they are not acquiring the computer skills that employers want. This is evident when I visit high schools and talk to seniors who apply to Syracuse University. These are relatively high-performing students: yet, when I ask them if they can use Excel, fewer and fewer students each year say, “yes.” Social media and playing with video technology as an exercise in creativity is crowding out the already modest effort our schools have placed on powerful tools like Excel. Excel is Life, and the failure of our high schools and colleges to make sure every student has solid Excel skills is a much bigger failure than a few percentage points on international standardized tests in mathematics.
Remember, it’s the skills stupid.
My June 8, 2011 blog described how having Excel skills enabled a student of mine to become a super-intern. I say to my students, “Excel is Life.” Now I have irrefutable proof based on an article from the BBC via LinkedIn which describes a global competition to find the best user of Microsoft’s spreadsheet software, Excel 2007. A 15-year-old from the UK, Rebecca Rickwood, beat out 228,000 competitors from 57 countries. I can now dream that Excel could become the next Olympic sport, and little Excel camps and Excel leagues could pop up all over the world. However, I was disappointed that a student from the UK won and not a student from the U.S. In my next blog, I will discuss the significance of this devastating loss.
One of the skills in the 10 Skill Sets is “type well.” I think that it is so important that I run a typing competition for my 7 grandkids every summer. We make a deal—I pay them $1.00 a word per minute in a typing test. Last year, it cost me $293.00. Those that are organized and focused on MONEY, practice weeks before. So the skills learned are not only typing, but also time management and self-motivation, which are the two most important skills for success.
With budget cuts and increased pressure on standardized test scores, some school districts have let keyboarding slip through the cracks. Teachers can easily encourage their students to improve their typing by sending them to one of the many online typing programs. Unfortunately, teachers can’t afford to pay $1.00 a word, but they can make a little speech every once in awhile for students to improve their typing skills if they want to save time in college and on the job.
When I was interviewed by Larry King in 2000 about my book How You Can Help: A Guide for Doing Good Deeds in Your Everyday Life, Larry asked me why I wrote the book. I said that I wanted people to develop citizenship skills. He asked me in a quizzical way, “citizenship skills?”
His question demonstrates that most people see citizenship as more a matter of the heart than the skillful exercise of rights and responsibilities. Many view citizenship as teaching about the structures in the Constitution or the principles in the Declaration. When people think about skills, they usually think about doing well in careers. However, many, if not all of the 10 Skill Sets are crucial for responsible citizenship in the contemporary world. The skills are necessary to understand and comply with the law and to work to improve society at all levels. Check out the list, and you will find very few that are not essential for today’s citizen.
I was visiting a high school class. The classroom teacher and I were discussing the class, when another teacher who was the Yearbook advisor interrupted us to say that she had to take the teacher’s picture for the yearbook, and it was going to press in two hours. I asked why the student committee wasn’t taking the picture and why wasn’t it done a week ago. Her non-verbal response was “drop dead.” I decided to really make my point by saying that the yearbook should not be published because the student committee didn’t meet its responsibility. A Principal I was discussing this incident with said, “Thanks a lot for generating angry phone calls when the students and their parents find out there is no yearbook.” I suggested that he give the callers the names of the students on the committee who failed to meet their responsibilities. I know. I know. I was able to say this because I wasn’t the Principal.
Some schools give academic credit for the Yearbook, and their teachers run a very tight ship. Some teachers are able to run a tight ship year in and year out without the credit and the threat of grades. These schools and teachers are providing many of the 10 Skill Groups ranging from time management, self-motivation and one-on-one communications to editing and proofing, using computer programs and teamwork. Schools with frazzled faculty advisors who only take responsibility for the product are missing an opportunity to help their students develop the skills they will need in their careers, in college and as citizens. Actually, they are teaching the wrong skills like how to miss deadlines, refuse to take responsibility and complain about each other.
A small high school in New York is making posters for their halls and classrooms to get students to include the ten skill groups in their educational goals and life plans. Teachers will be encouraged to mention specific skills when presenting their substantive materials and creating assignments. Another school in Central New York has had students mention skills in their PSA announcements. The idea is pretty simple. If students view school as practicing skills they need for their careers, college and citizenship, rather than getting grades and learning material, they will understand the relevance and be motivated during their high school years. The “It’s the Skills Stupid Campaign” could also lead some students to create other forms of advertising such as videos, announcements, competitions and whatever else sparks their interests. Parents might also understand and reinforce the message. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out. If you are a teacher, feel free to use or adapt the posters on the link.
All high school students, regardless of social class or educational ability, respond to the word “professional.” Their response is usually based on MONEY. They think professional athletes make a lot of money and that doctors, lawyers and engineers do the same. So asking them if they want to be a professional will get a “yes.”
Whenever I ask students “how does someone become a professional,” they answer “dedication and a lot of practice.” They know skills just don’t come naturally but require what any one of their idols, like Michael Jordan, will tell them.
While some post-secondary education is required for many professional careers, students should leave high school with a strong base for developing themselves into professionals regardless of their first jobs. For those who don’t go on to college, their success will depend on their general attitude toward work and essential skills required to earn a living. For those who do go onto college, there is no guarantee that their college education will automatically turn them into professionals.
The term “professional” also clearly implies personal responsibility. People are professionals because they want to be professionals. They strive for excellence whether it is in their part-time jobs at McDonalds or in their first job in a law firm. Employers will recognize that attitude and reward it.
In short, “being professional” is mastering the ten skill sets. It just sounds a lot more appealing. Try it and let me know how it goes.
The term “Gymnasium” was first used in ancient Greece to mean a place for physical and intellectual education. Americans use the term “gym” referring only to physical education while Germans use the full term for only preparation for higher education. I like the Greek viewpoint but would broaden it even more. I see high school as a skills gym where students practice, practice and practice the wide range of skills required to be a successful employee and a responsible citizen both within and outside the classroom. That viewpoint contrasts with the prevailing view that high school is a place where students “obtain” knowledge or simply prepare for higher education. Knowledge acquisition and college preparation is okay as long as students improve their ten skill sets.