Monday, July 13, 2015

Developing a Skills-Based Curriculum

Skills-based learning is the idea that instead of teaching content and wondering, "What activities should I use to help them learn this content?" we teach skills and wonder, "What content would be useful in helping students develop this skill?"

Instead of saying, 
"I want my students to learn about the sinking of the Titanic, so we will read several articles about it and watch a video. They will have to memorize the date it sank, the location, and know about the impact of the catastrophe on cruise ship safety." (knowledge-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to learn how to analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums to determine the significant details of the event. They will need to know how to determine the main idea of a text, use textual evidence to support their ideas, and evaluate the author's bias. I think that the sinking of the Titanic would be an excellent subject for this skill set." (skills-based)

Instead of saying,
"I want my students to memorize these twenty-five vocab words, their definitions, their parts of speech, and their given synonyms and antonyms." (knowledge-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to use context to determine or clarify the meaning of challenging words." (skills-based)

Instead of saying,
"I want my students to read Romeo and Juliet because it is a staple of high school literature that must be taught." (knowledge-based dogma-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to write an argumentative essay using Romeo and Juliet for context. They will develop a claim about who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and support their claim with evidence from the text." (skills-based)
"I want my students to analyze how dynamic characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot of the story. Romeo and Juliet is a character-driven play with several dynamic characters, so I think I will use that." (skills-based)
 "I want my students to identify themes found in both classic and modern literature and analyze those themes to determine which ones are universal. Romeo and Juliet has many universal themes that students will be able to relate to." (skills-based)
To develop a skills-based curriculum, you kind of have to flip around the way you think about creating your curriculum. Before I moved to a skills-based curriculum, I used to think in terms of content units. Okay, I teach freshmen English, so we will definitely have to do Romeo and Juliet. And I really like World War II stuff and Night is a really good book, so we'll do that. The Odyssey is a must, so we've got to do that. And my department head said I have to use this vocab book and we should probably try to get through the whole book by the end of the year, so...

Okay, I'm not saying there isn't any value to a knowledge-based curriculum. I definitely think that a  knowledge-base is necessary... as a foundation for skills-based learning. If the content is being used to further the skill, then that's great.

So, how do you know if what you've got in mind is skills-based instead of knowledge-based? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the learning active? Are students sitting, absorbing, just taking notes? Or are students in the thick of it and doing things to advance learning? Is this something they have to practice?
  2. Is the learning useful? Not everyone will grow up needing to know what superfluous means off the top of their head, but everyone needs to be able to figure out what words mean based off of context.
  3. Is the learning challenging? We're talking DOK levels 2, 3, and 4 here. Level 1 is basic recall and that is not what skills-based learning is about.
  4. Is the learning creative? Are students being asked to use creative thought? Or are they being asked to absorb?
  5. Is the learning collaborative? Oftentimes a skill is best learned when we collaborate with others. A skills-based curriculum often requires students to work together on a skill.
  6. Is the learning independent? There is also a time and place for independence in the classroom. Are students given the opportunity to independently practice this new skill too?

A common compliment I receive from my students is that they like my class because "we actually do something in there every day." A skills-based curriculum provides an active learning opportunity where students actually "do" something.

If you said to me, "Stephanie, I am only capable of learning one thing about skills-based learning. What is the one thing I need to know to implement this?" then this would be my answer:

Think of everything in "I can" statements. They do this all the time in elementary schools... why aren't we doing this in high schools too? It makes so much sense! What do you want the student to be able to do at the end of the class? They should be able to respond with "I can..."

I can determine the main idea of a text and use textual evidence to support my answer.

I can figure out what a new word means by reading the context it is in.

I can develop a claim for an argumentative essay and support that claim with evidence.

I can analyze a list of themes and determine which themes are universal.

So how do you develop an environment that encourages students to actively "do" instead of just to passively "be"? Stay tuned. :)