Moving to a skill-based focus to meet diverse student needs
As a teacher, I’ve been asked some form of the question, “When will I ever need this?” more times than I can count. Whether it’s grammar, some algebra concept, or a persuasive essay outline, students are always eager to argue that they’ll probably never need whatever skill they’re being asked to practice.
Luckily, I’ve always had a quick answer ready to go: “college.” When will you need to know how to diagram a sentence? College. Who is going to ask you to write an academic persuasive essay following a specifically-structured format? Your college professors. When will you be asked to demonstrate your skills in trigonometry? Definitely college — trust me. For lots of students, this answer is sufficient; they plan to go to college, so whatever we’re doing suddenly feels relevant to them.
But for those who plan to enter the working world directly after graduating, my answer doesn’t settle as well. While those students typically don’t push me to elaborate further, I know that they’re thinking to themselves that maybe what we’re doing isn’t so important. And if I’m being totally honest, there are lots of times when the voice in the very back of my head answers their, “When will I need this?” with a very honest response: “You probably won’t!”
So, let’s just admit it here — there are lots of things we teach in school that lots of students will probably never need again. And fellow teachers, if that makes you feel some type of way, just think for a moment about some of what you learned back in your own schooling and then never used again.
For me, having to memorize the periodic table back in high school chemistry class jumps to mind. It felt stressful and pressure-filled, but I forced myself to do it for a grade. I reminded myself that I’d need it in college, and maybe after that, too. But guess what?! Never, not even one time in my life since that high school class, have I needed to recall the placement of a specific element on the periodic table (not even when I took a basic chem class in college!). And what’s more, if some odd situation pops up where I do need that knowledge, I happen to carry a smartphone that allows me to Google it. Frankly, technology has made a lot of what I learned in high school easily accessible without my having to remember any of it.
As a teacher who doesn’t want to waste my students’ time or brainpower, I’ve spent the past year thinking a lot about what we teach in school and how we do it. If our goals are to meet the needs of as many students as possible and prepare students for whatever future they have planned for themselves, it seems that our energy is best focused around applicable skills. With this in mind, my colleagues and I have reworked our curricula, and even our graduation requirements, to allow for student choice and agency in showing their academic mastery.
For example, the content area of English breaks down into the very general categories of reading, writing, analysis, and communication. Each category then breaks down further. For example, “writing” breaks down into topics like “formal writing” and “narrative writing” rather than the far more specific “compare/contrast essay” that used to be required. Very few students will ever need to write a compare/contrast essay, but pretty much everyone has to write in a formal way, whether it’s an academic essay in college or an email to a boss or customer at work. Moving from focusing on what students would produce (like an essay), we instead have started calling out the skills that students will take forward into whatever their future may hold. This change has been an overwhelmingly positive one already this year, with students investing far more powerfully in what we’re asking them to do.
Reworking our graduation requirements and curricula has obviously been a lot of work, and we definitely aren’t done. Some content areas have been easier to make more explicitly skill-based than others, and the conversations we’ve had as a staff have at times been tense and difficult. But we can already see improvement in how students are responding to what they’re learning, that makes all our hard work worth it.
One unexpected perk? Not even one student has asked when they’ll actually need the skills we’re learning, because they can picture their own future and see for themselves exactly when they’ll need them.