Published on Let's Talk Development

The skill of developing skills

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Skills have become one of the most important topics, if not the most, in the education arena, particularly when the world registers the highest education levels in history. Precisely because policymakers realized that more years of schooling did not necessarily translate into more learning, skills development, or economic growth, most countries began to progressively implement competency-based education reforms, mainly in the 2000s. Surprisingly, these reforms have not always succeeded in improving learning outcomes, or at least not at the expected pace. Thus, a relevant question is: how can we teach skills, in practice, in every classroom to make sure that what is crafted at the education authority level translates into measurable results in every student?
Even though there have never been as many reports available about skill development policies as there are now, most of them focus on recommendations to identify skills-shortages and implement skill development strategies, at the aggregate level. Unfortunately, the evidence about what policymakers can do to specifically enable the development of skills in schools is more limited. From my experience as a policymaker leading a large skill development program, a crucial step to facilitate this process, as simple and obvious as it may seem, is to invest enough time to define the skills that will be taught, as precisely as possible.
Wait, but what exactly are skills?
Skills are the ability to do something well. While knowledge alludes to the way we realize, understand, and remember information, skills refer to the way that we choose, use, and apply knowledge in different circumstances, facing diverse and frequently unpredictable challenges. Think about writing emails, for example: individuals may know how to write, and they may even know what emails are, but that doesn’t mean they know how to write emails well, much less how to write them in different contexts, and for different audiences and purposes. Thus, being able to write is different than having communication skills. In fact, a more technical definition of skills –or competencies– involves knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values, which means that, in the email example, individuals are not only expected to use their grammar well but to also show empathy and respect.
In addition, skills are:
  • Multi-dimensional and interrelated: skills can be (1) cognitive, (2) socio-emotional or non-cognitive, and/or (3) technical or job-relevant, but they can also be of basic order or high order. Different types of skills interact so much that it becomes complex to determine which skills beget the development of others, or to classify certain skills into only one category. For example, socio-emotional skills are necessary to learn and develop cognitive skills, but at the same time developing cognitive abilities contributes to developing socio-emotional ones.
  • Cross-disciplinary: the same skill can be taught across different disciplines with similar or different purposes –for example: problem solving.
  • Transversal: the same skill can be relevant to a broad range of occupations or sectors, not only to an individual’s current occupation –for example: communication.
  • Transferable: a core objective of skills is that they can be transferred to and applied in different occupations or contexts –for example: decision making.
  • Acquired during different developmental periods: skills can be acquired and developed during different age periods, according to individuals’ needs and maturity. Typically, cognitive skills are developed during early childhood and childhood and tend to plateau around adulthood, while job-relevant skills are usually acquired during late adolescence and adulthood.
  • Ultimately evaluated in the workplace and in life: even though individuals are supposed to acquire some of the most important skills in school, it is several years later, in the workplace and/or in life, that they will be able to assess whether they have acquired them or not.
So, why is it hard to teach them (in practice)?
To teach skills, teachers need clear, specific objectives that are measurable. This is particularly relevant for teaching socio-emotional skills, since their assessment is more complex than that of cognitive skills. Since skills are multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary, among other characteristics, teachers need to have a clear idea of what they are expected to teach, so that they can track progress in the classroom. This includes specific and simple definitions for every skill within a curriculum framework.
Think of the following real-life example: In 2008, Mexico’s competency-based Upper Secondary Reform (or RIEMS) introduced a common curriculum framework with 11 common competencies. One of these competencies was defined as “the student chooses and practices [a healthy life style]”. In practice, teaching this type of objective is tricky since teachers cannot necessarily force students to make healthy decisions, much less evaluate whether they made them or not.
Sometimes competencies tend to be defined as the outcome of a skill (in this case, choosing healthy life styles), not as a skill per se (responsible decision making for example), which makes them hard to teach and evaluate. In the context of the program that I led, we decided to work along with psychologists and teachers to set clear, understandable, and simple definitions for our 18 skills, including responsible decision-making. This step helped us to implement the program faster and helped teachers to carry out the program’s teaching activities.
The more specific we can be about what works, and what doesn’t, the better the outcomes.  I strongly encourage you to use your policymaking skills for that purpose.

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