Universal Skills for Learners: Increasing School Relevancy

Kids are learning – but for way too many it occurs outside of the school environment rather than during school. Given today’s technologies, it makes sense and is exciting that learning occurs after schools hours, but for exciting, engaging, and profound learning not to occur during school hours is, simply put, a travesty.

I contend that school, especially in the latter part of the 20th century, had a high degree of irrelevancy but in today’s highly connected world, it is absurd, verging, in my perspective, as unethical practices. We are asking today’s students to spend so much of their school lives doing tasks that are unconnected to the the skills that need now and in their future lives.

. . . and the kids agree as studies have indicated.

Gallup has conducted more than 5 million surveys with students in grades five through 12 over the past several years. These students have come from every state and from a range of rural, suburban and urban school settings. Almost half of students who responded to the survey are engaged with school (47%), with approximately one-fourth “not engaged” (29%) and the remainder “actively disengaged” (24%). A closer look at the data by grade level reveals a disturbing trend. Engagement is strong at the end of elementary school, with nearly three-quarters of fifth-graders (74%) reporting high levels of engagement. But similar surveys have shown a gradual and steady decline in engagement from fifth grade through about 10th grade, with approximately half of students in middle school reporting high levels of engagement and about one-third of high school students reporting the same (School Engagement Is More Than Just Talk).

Just 54 percent of middle schoolers and 46 percent of high schoolers think their studies are relevant, according to new data from the nonprofit YouthTruth. Relevance was rated lowest on the survey of various measures of student engagement: if students take pride in their work, if they enjoy going to school, if their schoolwork is relevant, if they try to do their best, and if their teachers’ expectations help them with that goal (Only Half of Students Think What They’re Learning in School Is Relevant to the Real World, Survey Says).

Over five years ago, I wrote a post entitled Universal Skills All Learners Should Know How to Do in order to discuss those skills I believe are important for learners during this era. For this post, I revisited it. I revised it to now include financial literacy and civics.

I think most administrators and educators (and learners) would agree with the importance of most of the skills on this list to assist learners to be successful now and in their futures. Sadly, though, too few of these skills are directly and intentionally taught to learners: writing, speaking, and for more progressive schools, engaging in the arts and the computer science related skills. Is the current school system model really the best we can do?

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