Essential skills: Get past the tricky and stop trying to balance

Jody Britten
Jun 19 · 9 min read

We used to think essential skills were limited to reading and writing (maybe toss in a little science and history for good measure). But today that isn’t enough. Our world has changed and with it our educational systems must respond (from preschool through college and even graduate school). While some systems are staging their response and showing great gains; others are still living in yesteryear with a systemic focus on academic skills and nothing more.

She said, ‘…but Jody school has never been about just academics’ and I responded with ‘I know that, but we’ve never had enough information to say with certainty that we were in fact purposefully developing things like creativity and collaboration; it was a system of ‘maybe-sort of’ instead of doing with intended purpose.’ We talked more and eventually she understood my point.

It’s not a question that tomorrow’s jobs will necessitate an entirely different view of readiness. Albeit readiness for Kindergarten or readiness for college, the challenges that our new economy presents to our systems of education are real. The need to address essential skills like critical thinking, empathy, problem solving, creativity, and collaboration (to name a few) is real and not slowing down.

Technology isn’t the devil that’s robbing us. Rather, technology is pushing us to utilize our humanness to do what technology will never be able to do, practice worthy skills that cannot be cloned by code.

He said, ‘but Jody if a computer is doing the job my father used to do, how is it not turned out as a negative?’ I responded with an acknowledgement that ‘in fact technology has taken over some jobs, but in other cases it has created opportunity for us to truly demonstrate our human value. If something can be accomplished without a human, it just might not be what we were intended to spend our time doing.’

There is conundrum facing our kids and classrooms. That conundrum is this: we place high expectations on K-4 development of core academic skills and still believe that if we intentionally develop other essential skills we are detracting from basic skills and foundational knowledge mastery.

If kids are spending time mastering spelling words and math facts (through traditional methods) we don’t really question those practices much. Why? Because we firmly believe that kids need those core skills.

This is where it gets tricky. because kids also need to be developing worthy skills, and they naturally start doing so at birth.

We often inadvertently disallow them to practice essential skills when students spend six plus hours a day in didactic educational environments where they get told what to learn, and when to learn it. When research tells us that foundational skills and knowledge are best learned through inquiry and problem based learning (not direct instruction); why do we still have students sitting in rows being told when to read, when to write, when to calculate, when to collaborate, when to be creative, etc.? Why do we still think that academics and essential skills are two separate buckets?

The culture of our schools (starting in preschool) thrives and focuses on academics alone. We have standards for core academic areas (note that in most states science and social studies don’t really “count” because they aren’t assessed), we have reports cards that might have a behavioral component (works well with others, etc. that have been around since the 1970s), and we have standardized tests (that focus particularly on literacy and mathematics). While some tests toss in efforts to address critical thinking, and some curriculum materials toss in problem solving and collaboration activities there is no easy fix to purposefully develop essential skills equitably among our students. Throughout our educational systems we attempt easy fixes by adopting new curriculum materials (many of which do not have demonstrated results in developing essential skills), or we toss in a term like “balance” to make ourselves feel better about our approach.

She said, ‘but Jody I just bought a new science curriculum for our entire school district and it has great problem solving and collaboration materials for teachers to use.’ I asked if all the teachers knew what problem solving and collaboration are, how those skills are developed, and how those skills can be evaluated to provide feedback to students. She said ‘absolutely not.’ I told her that there in is the problem with our efforts. ‘Quick fixes without thought or effort or understanding do little to really help our students, it paints a pretty picture but doesn’t do much to prove that students are better off today than they were yesterday in developing worthy skills.’

But this isn’t an easy fix where we just buy a new curriculum and move on. It gets tricky, and then it gets more tricky. Here’s why.

Tricky part number one: We don’t really have a solid universal understanding for what these skills are (I will call them essential skills, but for a long time we have called them 21st Century skills or non-cognitive skills or non-academic skills or soft skills). We can’t purposefully develop any skill in students that we do not understand deeply.

Seriously we can’t. I suck at trigonometry, I have zero potential to develop student skills in trigonometry because I do not understand it deeply.

Solution to said tricky part: No matter if you are a preschool or a school district or a university or a college or a home-schooling family you need to agree on what these essential skills are. Not which skills (as you personally define them), but what the skills actually are by research-based definition. You should walk away with things like: Creativity is the use of original ideas in the creation of a product. This simple (yet complex) foundational task will allow you to move forward with agreement on what you are trying to develop in kids.

Tricky part number two: A lot of folks consider these non-academic skills (I have been guilty a time or two of calling them that). Here’s the issue, core academic skills (see below for how ACT defines them) are traditional academic subjects, discrete subjects like mathematics, reading, writing, etc. So we as a society, out of tradition if nothing else, have built systems of instruction, curriculum, and accountability off this discrete approach.

The development of core academic skills is the traditional focus of primary, secondary, and postsecondary general education curricula and coursework (Nelson Laird, Shoup, Kuh, & Schwarz, 2008). These courses are limited to a small number of academic disciplines that provide a necessary foundation for future learning. Specifically, students need some level of proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics in earlier stages of learning to be prepared for more advanced learning in subsequent grades or for specialization in postsecondary education and employment (Allen & Sconing, 2005; Handel, 2010).

The problem with the discrete approach is that we somehow disconnect content from experience. If our kids need content they can go to YouTube or Kahn Academy or PBS Kids. If our kids need experience they go to school and interact with peers and excellent teachers that facilitate excellent, deep, authentic learning experiences.

Solution to said tricky part: We have to think about (as Elliot Eisner used to preach) school as a full cultural experience that is inclusive of the null curriculum (what we teach by accident), essential skills, content, and learning experience. But here’s the trigger point for most parents, families, educators, leaders: We can not assess only the core academic skills and think that these other skills will be attended to. We might even need to redefine academic skills to include those new essentials, so that we aren’t stuck in the past but driving our systems of learning towards the future.

If we say we are going to develop essential skills in all students in our school districts we need to give teachers definitions, strategies that will actually develop those skills throughout content areas, and provide opportunities to reflect with students on how they are developing, using, demonstrating, and improving those worthy skills.

Tricky part number three: We have to move past the belief that these essential skills are only pertinent at the high school level. In fact, when we look at the research it clearly states that many of these worthy skills can only be truly engrained during the early years. Part of our conflict right now is that we are training our kids/adults to use skills (e.g., collaboration, critical thinking, questioning) when they have already developed automaticity around other skills (e.g., compliance, following directions, completing tasks).

FYI automaticity is when behaviors or actions or responses occur independently of volition; involuntary; or done unconsciously or from force of habit.

Purposefully developing worthy skills in students after they have already developed their own habits and ways of living and working and solving and creating is too little too late. We have to move away from the tradition of “academic skills are the focus in the early years” and own the research that supports that through the use of essential skills in the early years children are learning as they should developmentally be learning (with peers, through play, with creation, with trial and error). We can’t get adults in the workforce to own and practice these essential skills if they are only using them, learning about them, reflecting on them, etc. during the last three years of their education.

Solution to said tricky part: We need to rethink the learning experience during the early years. In the most recent edition of How People Learn it is clear that “learning is supported by an array of cognitive processes that must be coordinated for successful learning to occur.” What that means is that we can no longer justify one approach, a standard curriculum, and a teacher-directed learning experience for our kids. Start with things like the ISTE standards for students and build the culture of learning with strategies that master all essential skills, not just academic. We are moving to a time when the “what we teach” is not nearly as important as the “how our students learn.”

Tricky part number four: We have allowed measures of accountability to be our educational North Star. What that means for our classrooms is that we assess academics alone. The problem with that is that gone are the days that knowing basic math skills is enough. And enough is the key word. Though ESSA wrapped in opportunities for assessment of other capacities (like social emotional learning) we aren’t yet over the hump where we continually measure what matters.

Solution to said tricky part: To address these complexities we have to rethink our base line of evidence. And we have to rethink our approaches to assessment. What if groups of teachers collected evidence for specific essential skills at different grade levels every three years? Would they have a longitudinal look at progress? Yes, if that evidence was based on something more than a teacher report. Try this…

What if teachers in first grade created a rubric and established inter-rater reliability for that rubric and looked at one specific skill (let’s say computational thinking skills) in the natural context of their classroom. Over time students would have opposite demonstrate growing competence through projects and other demonstrations of learning.

We need to readdress the readiness of our teachers to understand quality assessment practices.


There are too many tricky parts of this story to list, but it is not tricky to get started. It is not tricky to follow the research on learning (not just academics) and take action. It takes intention, an acknowledgement of the knowledge and expertise you need within your organization, and a commitment to developing essential skills because it’s the right thing to do.

We can’t wait until high school, and we can’t wait until policy makers force us. We have to acknowledge that essential skills are worthy and necessary and are effectively developed in young children.

Our kids deserve it.

    Jody Britten

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    fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions