Learning Skills Are More Valuable than Knowledge and Content

‘Learning Skills’ is a term that describes the tasks involved in learning, as well as the habits, strategies, and tools that help people to be better students and achieve more success in any class or subject.

As I sit down to plan a unit or design an assignment, often, the content in that unit is not the most important thing I am thinking about. In fact, often the subject is arbitrary – this or that science unit, these or those novels. The same skills can be learned, whichever one I choose.

The skills are the important part, and I always start there when I am planning – what do I want the students to be able to do at the end of the unit? You can read more about a skills-based curriculum here.

These skills can be specific, and vary from unit to unit, grade level to grade level, but through all of it, there are Learning Skills that permeate every subject, lesson, and grade. These are skills that every student should be encouraged to practice, at a level appropriate for their age and development. Students who have a firm grasp of these skills early are empowered, confident, and have the tools to be successful later when classes are more complex, time consuming, and independent.

If, as teachers, we can put a focus on these skills in the elementary years (I have started as early as kindergarten!) and continue to support and remind students about them as they move into secondary, we’ll find that the ability to master content and academic skills will follow much more easily for them.

In the years that I have been teaching, I have noticed 5 main learning skills that can make a huge difference to students and the amount of success and confidence they can achieve:

A Growth Mindset:

It is so easy for students to believe that what they know and what they can do is static and unchanging. That they just aren’t good at things, or they were born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. But we know that that isn’t how our brains work, and that we can get better at things. Encouraging a mindset of “not yet” can be so helpful: “I’m not good at writing essays…..yet.”

How? By focusing on improvements and the process rather than results and grades. If a students gets a 9/20, focus on the fact that it’s higher than the 7/20 they got last week. If they write an essay that’s too short, remind them that it’s longer than the last one they wrote. Focus on those improvements, and the fact that those improvements can continue. 

Self Awareness:    

Many students don’t have an awareness of specifically what they are good at or need help with. I have worked with so many students who know their test scores are lower than they would like, but don’t know how to explain to me what they don’t understand or what they need to do better. When I ask students how they studied for a test, they don’t understand that question – they ‘just studied’.  An awareness of how they learn, what strategies work for them, and what they need to do when they are studying can make the difference between frustratingly wasted study time and real progress.

How? By being explicit about what study methods or strategies you’re helping them find, and checking in about what is working and what isn’t. If their work space changes, talk about how and ask them to pay attention to how it helped. If they switch from being quizzed to help them memorize something to writing down what they need to memorize, be explicit in pointing out the difference. Your goal is to have a student who can say, “I need to be in a quiet room, with some music, and flashcards aren’t going to help me so I won’t waste my time,” and then go do that.

Self-Reliance:

The transfer of responsibility for work, for learning, and for results is a gradual one, with more and more being transferred as you move up the grades. The ability to take responsibility for their own learning and be proactive makes a huge difference in both a student’s confidence and achievement. When faced with a difficult homework assignment, it is the difference between a student who shrugs their shoulders and waits for the teacher to take up the answers the next day (or accepts that they are going to fail) and a student who knows that they can do something about it: do some research, look for some classmates to work with, dig out a resource they know will help them. Being able to solve their own problems instead of waiting for a teacher or a parent can make all the difference.

How? Don’t do the work for them, even when it’s tempting! Ask them, “What can you do about that?” or “What’s your plan?”, and direct them to resources and tools they can use. Don’t let them off the hook when they blame someone else or shrug their shoulders – there is almost always something they can do to advance or solve the problem. Putting that power to problem solve and affect the outcome can be frustrating at first, but so empowering in the long run. 

Time Management:

The responsibility for time management is also a gradual transfer as students get older, but even with very young students you can be explicit about narrating your own timing choices in class, and use things like timers or checklists to help students learn to manage their time to do activities. Older students begin to use agendas and plan out their homework schedules. It is so important to teach students to be able to manage and make decisions about their own time and priorities, and to develop the discipline to stick to a plan, defer gratification, or make difficult decisions about what they have time for. Good time management can eliminate stressful evenings full of panic, the pile of unfinished homework assignments, or walking into tests unprepared.

How? First, by insisting on good use of an agenda.Students need to be able to take control of their agendas and their schedules, instead of only relying on teachers to fill out the digital ones. They need to be able to use the agendas not just as a list of due dates, but as a way to plan out their homework and other commitments. A planning session on Sunday nights at home or Monday mornings at school for how the week will look – “You’ll get that essay done by Friday if you do the outline on Tuesday and the rough copy on Wednesday.” – goes a long way to developing habits and control.

Self-Advocacy:

I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve taught who didn’t know they were allowed to tell me they needed something from me. This one goes hand in hand with self awareness. I have worked with students who handed in blank papers at the end of an hour, telling me that they didn’t know they were allowed to ask for help. Who were too afraid to tell me they needed the dictionary that was sitting on my desk, or didn’t know they could tell me that they couldn’t see the whiteboard well.  Students need to be able to identify what they need and ask for it. This can look like asking for extra help, requesting an extra day to finish an assignment, letting a teacher know they have to sit in a different part of the room, or telling a teacher they don’t understand. 

How? When you are working on those self-awareness skills, you can help your student know  which of the things they identified they can do on their own, and which things they need to ask for or talk to their teacher about. I’ve coached students to say things like, “Actually, those flashcards aren’t going to help me much, could I use a list instead?” A student who can ask for what they need is one who is much more likely to get the help, support, and resources they need. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t need to – but teachers aren’t mind readers, and they can only help with things they know about. 

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