Can you explain what skills are and how to develop them?

Did you feel confident naming some of the key skills? Maybe you cited the more popular skills cited – literacy, numeracy, or perhaps ‘problem solving’, ‘critical thinking’ or ‘teamwork’.

After some naming of skills, could you confidently explain the ‘how’ of developing those skills? It proves a trickier question than we might first assume. It may expose a lack of knowledge on our part. More likely, if we were to explain our answers, it would reveal that we all have different notions of skills, their range, and how you might develop or teach skills (or whether you think they are teachable at all).

It is easy then to expect misunderstanding and miscommunication to occur when it comes to the rather fuzzy notion of skills. If different people are talking about different things, you can understand how arguments can break out. For colleagues in English schools at least, skills may elicit very polarised views.

What are skills and why do they matter?

There are regular headlines about a skills crisis or a ‘skills gap’. In the recent Labour report, entitled Learning and skills for economic recovery, social cohesion and a more equal Britain’, led by David Blunkett, it stated:

“Many note that young people do not have the essential, often called ‘soft’, skills such as team-working, creativity or problem solving – which are rated in the top recruiting priorities by 60% of employers.”

The Confederation of British Businesses, known commonly by their CBI moniker, makes a regular focus of skills and issues a persistent demand for a more skilled adult workforce. In 2019, they aimed to define the focus on ‘skills’ as ‘Getting young people ‘work ready’’. It makes a gallant attempt to redefine skills:

Skills – the application of knowledge and character in real world scenarios through team-work, leadership, problem-solving and communication.”

The problem here is the legion of terms (many that can prove as tricky as skills) and the different attempts at definitions. The CBI report admits the challenge, before attempting to recast the focus onto young people being ‘work ready’:

“Soft skills, essential skills, employability skills, transferable skills, 21st century skills, interpersonal skills, life skills and character education, are just some of the interchangeable but not identical ways of describing what it means to be ‘work ready’.”

What is consistent is that notions of skills are wedded to the world of work – as a catch-all for adult education – along with more/better education in the ‘real world’ beyond the school gates. I think this broader post-16 ‘skills agenda’ is laudable. According to many accounts, our adult education system is struggling and further education is in decline.

And yet, the problem starts here.

Skills likely mean something different to schoolteachers than it does to the CBI. Not only that, but teachers must grapple with the business of teaching and learning stuff, so they need clear definitions, bodies of knowledge, reliable assessments, and other complex tools. If we can’t define skills and translate them to the school curriculum, with agreement of teachers, we won’t get very far.

The question of how you define, teach, learn, and assess skills appears as fuzzy today as it did 30 years ago, when 21st century skills were lauded, and factory model schools were derided. Skills may matter, but we struggle to find shared definitions of what they are.

Why might skills be problematic for teachers in English schools?

Shift happens

This phrase may elicit a confused shrug, but if you are a teacher or school leader of substantial experience, it probably draws a prolonged eyeroll. You see, lots of us were subjected to a legion of training sessions where we were told shift happens, China is taking over everything, and schools must be overhauled to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.

The ‘shift happens’ video typically preceded a session of team-work skills, generic ‘critical thinking’ skills, or similar. What is the problem with that you ask?

Well, teachers’ classrooms are full of teamwork and critical thinking. If you are after teamwork, observe a science experiment, forest school, ethical debates in RE, keyboard practice in music, whole-class discussions, book talk, a PE lesson, a drama lesson, and much more. If it is critical thinking you want, you could explore a discussion about the impact of the Normans in a history lesson, observe a geography case study, a maths lesson, close reading in English, or similar.

What was loosely proposed as skills fifteen years ago were lessons outside of the traditional subject domains in secondary schools. Planning for one-off project days, ‘thinking skills’ lessons, promoted via group work, or even learning styles, in a mash-up of new ideas. Some of it may have had a plausible basis, but lots of it was inferior to the teaching that preceded it.

In the last decade in particular, a significant number of schoolteachers and leaders in England have engaged in a range of research evidence. Many teachers, and professional organisations, engaged with research that challenged the consensus on shift matters and skills. For instance, Professor Daniel Willingham proved influential in popularising cognitive science for teachers. He made a compelling argument in ‘Critical Thinking: Why it is So Hard to Teach?’, that:

“…critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and even trained scientists can fail in. And it is very much dependent on domain knowledge and practice.”

Knowledge began to trump skills and teachers would go on write cogent critiques of ‘critical thinking skills’.  The debating spaces of Twitter and social media meant that explorations of involving skills and knowledge would be connected amongst teachers keen to challenge fads and fashions. Figures like Sir Ken Robinson would have ideas pitched against E.D. Hirsch, and similar. In schools in England at least, terms like procedural knowledge would be ushered in and using the term skills would fade from view.

Can you now explain the problem with ‘skills’ for many in schools?

Many teachers would view notions of preparing students to be ‘work ready’ as a flawed philosophy. The purpose of school for many teachers is to provide academic knowledge and to learn ‘the best of what has been thought and known’ (a liberal arts philosophy). In this regard, CBI pronouncements and similar, have often been received with some scepticism.

Policies associated with a ‘skills agenda’, like apprenticeships, would largely be welcomed by most teachers in England. But the mention of skills are as likely represent a muddle of dodgy past practices that have been rejected than some useful national policies.

The problem then with skills is that they are poorly defined and likely to instigate scepticism amongst teachers. Any purposeful pursuit of developing skills would need ample engagement with teachers. Many of those teachers would (rightly) demand evidence of effectiveness for new curricula or ways of teaching.

Those teachers are understandable circumspect because Shift never really did happen in the way the glossy videos promised. If approaching skills in schools is to be revisited, proponents need to explain why. Not only that, but they also need to define it well in relation to knowledge, characterise what is looks like in the classroom and in curriculum plans, and think critically about how it would be enacted to improve upon current teaching efforts and curricula.