A doctor came to see me a while back to discuss my program in case his child came to SU. He had seen the ten skill sets that is the foundation of the policy studies major. He commented that he thought it was a great idea to list typing as one of the skills because he sees his colleagues hunting and pecking with two fingers when they have to write reports. He also commented on the need for doctors to improve their one-on-one communication skills, especially how to listen first and talk second, plus somehow learn how to not ramble. When high school teachers and college professors take on the role of skills trainer, our future doctors will be better at typing and talking. Hopefully, this will help to contain runaway medical costs. I know it will make this doctor very happy.
Most after school tutoring programs are either daycare programs where students are entertained (at the elementary school level) or tutoring programs at all levels to help students catch up. These programs could serve another purpose without giving up the existing goals if tutors are aware of the ten sets of skills. Regardless of the subject matter or purpose of such programs, tutors could be teaching good habits such as taking responsibility which includes self-motivation and time management, communicating verbally, writing well, working directly with people, asking and answering the right questions and solving problems.
Tutors would have to “teach” these skills by both example and coaching. That means they can’t show up late, demonstrate a lack of motivation, not listen, be rude, not encourage good questions and not give student problems to solve. They must teach through actions and that means they have to have the necessary skill sets.
To get the right tutors, selection must be based as much on the ten sets of skills as they are on knowledge content. If there is training, it should be built around the 10 skills. From my observation of such programs, we could greatly improve the effectiveness of after school programs by remembering “it’s the skills stupid.”
In advocating that teachers should also be skills trainers, I am aware of the constraints placed on teachers that create challenges for them to help enhance the skills of students. The emphasis on substantive knowledge in the curriculum does not prevent the incorporation of skills in their educational activities as much as the rules and regulations they have to deal with. These rules come from the Federal and State governments and their bloated bureaucracies, local Boards and the superintendents who are forced to deal with all kinds of mandates and grant opportunities. The high stakes tests, the latest fads and word games required, the use of grants to confuse and overload school systems and the special interest groups make it difficult for teachers to devote time and attention to the development of the ten sets of skills.
Parents and students also stand in the way. First, their overwhelming concern with grades usually crowds all teachers’ goals to promote learning. Second, skills development requires practice and formative evaluation from the teacher which can’t easily be converted into grades that can be clearly defended to meddling parents. Just think how much our students could benefit from the skills if teachers were free from these unnecessary constraints!
If you give students knowledge, they will be able to pass a test for a day; if you give students skills, they will be able to obtain and apply knowledge for the rest of their lives. The ability to find and apply knowledge is essential for every student’s future. Inherent in that ability is some knowledge base but just having knowledge is not enough. While teachers must help their students master the knowledge they think is important, they also must provide the skills necessary to use that knowledge.
When asked by a syndicated publication, The Motley Fool, “what young people should study,” Buffett replied, “Do anything you can do to improve your skills. You never know when it’s going to pay off.” As one of the richest men in the world responding to a question from the authors of a highly valued financial source, Buffett’s reply should be no surprise to the readers of this blog. As I have said before, “It’s the skills stupid.”
I recently received the following email from one of my students who just finished her sophomore year at college.
“For the summer I am interning with a company in Albany as a ‘Market Analyst.’ On my first day, they asked me if I knew how to use Excel and design surveys, and to test me they had me design a client satisfaction survey and then create a mini-report for my boss. I finished that, and a few hours later the VP of marketing for the company came into my office with my survey and report and asked me if I would be willing to travel with them to Chicago and Detroit to meet with potential clients. They were shocked that as a college student I knew not only how to create surveys but how to graphically present them in a logical manner.
They were so impressed they even gave me a company blackberry and corporate travel account so I can travel with the marketing team to conduct surveys. In a few weeks I will be heading out to Chicago to survey doctors.”
Over the past 20 years, I have received hundreds of emails from students and alums about the value of Microsoft Excel and survey design, which is why they are on my list of skills and why I say “It’s the skills stupid.”
The best way to help students develop the ten skill sets needed for careers, college and citizenship is for the whole educational village to encourage practice and feedback. Teachers, administrators, parents, employers, friends and relatives can help students see that everything they do provides an opportunity for skill development.
Unfortunately, today’s teenagers see school as their education and everything else as in the moment with little or no educational impact. They have let “their schooling get in the way of their education,” to paraphrase Mark Twain. In school, they tend to treat the material they are supposed to learn as barriers to jump over instead of opportunities to exercise the skills they will need in the future. They tend to think their part-time jobs as only about getting cash. In extra-curricular activities, they tend to want the credit or just have fun without hard and responsible work. In their personal lives, they have difficulty deferring gratification and see things such as their college application process as an annoyance or a game to win rather than as an opportunity to practice many skills like money management, editing and proofing and searching for information that will make themselves successful in the future.
From parents to teachers and employers, the adults in their lives can play a big role just by reminding students that practicing these skills is the path to success. The educational village can model exemplary skills by showing good time management, communicating effectively and treating them as they would expect to be treated.
To become effective Skills Trainers, teachers must start with a list of concrete skills that all students should develop to succeed in careers, college and as citizens. Sounds like a simple and obvious idea, but committing to a list is a serious hurdle. The idea of developing a list of skills is not a new idea. Quite the opposite! Lists of skills are everywhere and growing daily. The challenge is to choose a list that works and stick with it. If you want to have your own list, the challenge is not too great. If you want to have a list of skills agreed to by others, it may never happen.
I have suggested a list of 38 skills in ten skill sets that you could start with. An early version of the list was published in my book 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College in 2003 and has been vetted to thousands of educational professionals in my speeches over the years. It has been continually refined by students under my direction. This list of skills has been developed as a result of 50 years of teaching and advising college students and talking with employers and recruiters about what they look for in a good employee.
If you don’t like the list or your colleagues don’t like it, come up with your own. A word of warning: forming a committee to come up with its own list is unlikely to get beyond the goal definition stage. If you or do try, the list should be somewhere between 10 and ten skills.
Once you have a list, you can become an effective skills trainer because you will have goals and can begin the more important task of guiding and evaluating students to develop these skills.
Or to put it more simply, just get a list and move on.
Most teachers are budding skills trainers. Historians want their students to write well, and they frequently make comments to help students practice their skills. Science teachers want their students to pay attention to detail using grades to communicate that wish.
However, few high school teachers and college professors approach the task of improving students’ skills explicitly and in an comprehensive way. If they were straightforward about skills, teachers would include skills in course syllabi, list objectives and provide a clear distinction in grading between content and skills. Teachers also pick and choose skills when in fact many of the ten skill sets could be included in their syllabi and grading processes.
Taking on the role of Skills Trainer will not require teachers to give up any of the content they wish to cover. On the contrary, it will help in the mastery of the content. Being a skills trainer will only require a clear statement of a list of skills, encouragement to practice those skills and evaluations based on those skills. Just like a personal trainer, the teaching is not in lectures or even extensive demonstrations but in setting goals, encouraging practice and evaluating improvement.