What skills are worth teaching?

The argument regarding the relative importance of teaching generic or transferable skills and teaching the inflexible knowledge which underlies more flexible thinking, is one that divides many teachers and, in my opinion, typically generates more heat than light.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the rhetoric. Teachers who emphasise the importance of developing skills sometimes stereotype the opposition as believing that inflexible knowledge is the means and ends of education. On the other hand, teachers that emphasise the importance of the inflexible knowledge base required for more complex or fluid uses of that knowledge sometimes stereotype the opposition as believing that skills are ‘content-free’ and require no prior knowledge to employ.

I’ve written before about attempts to move past these stereotypes to look at the genuine questions. It’s an important issue as the opportunity costs are high. If we waste time explicitly teaching children skills that they naturally develop, then we lose opportunities to develop knowledge and skills that require considerable time and effort to master.

So, what are the skills worth actively teaching and which skills should we probably leave to the natural developmental and the inevitable social processes which accompany education? One of the difficulties is trying to pin down exactly which set of skills children should supposedly learn through school. For the sake of finding something concrete to argue about, I’ve chosen  Subject to change: new thinking on the curriculum (2007) published by the ATL

It appears a well-written and fairly comprehensive review of the ‘skills model’ approach to curriculum. Whilst it might not fit everyone’s full set of criteria, I’m hopeful it won’t be accused of being a strawman.

In chapter four, it sets out the agenda for a new national curriculum:

“The approach suggested here is to move away from defining the curriculum in terms of knowledge, whether generally defined as ways of knowing or as detailed knowledge content, and to replace it with a definition in terms of skills.”

“In this book, a skills curriculum is not meant to be limited to academic subject skills, although it includes them. Neither is it limited to work-related skills, although it includes them too. What is proposed here is to produce an analysis of what school leavers in the twenty-first century need.”

I want to pick up on a few of these to argue the point that whilst some skills appear to genuinely benefit from explicit teaching in lessons, many of them simply do not need it; that exposure and opportunities that naturally arise around curriculum time give ample opportunity for some skills to develop to a high standard without the opportunity cost of using a teacher’s directed time.

Interpersonal skills

Whether framed as collaboration, social skills or effective communication, one of the transferable skills often highlighted within education are the set of interpersonal skills that employers often want from school-leavers or we might wish to develop purely so that children are able to express themselves. The ATL document lists these (p86):

“Typologies of interpersonal skills include items such as: listening; body language; negotiating; giving and receiving criticism; assertiveness; empathy.”

It’s certainly possible that these skills can be explicitly taught, the question is whether we need to teach them. For example, Geary identifies many of these skills as ‘folk psychology’ which develop instinctively as we have brains shaped by millions of years of evolution to rapidly learn them.

“Folk knowledge is organized around a constellation of more specialized primary abilities. As an example, the domain of folk psychology includes implicit and sometimes explicit knowledge organized around the self, specific other individuals (e.g., family members), and group-level dynamics, and these knowledge bases are composed of more specific primary abilities. For individual-level folk knowledge, these specific abilities emerge from the brain, perceptual, and cognitive systems that support language, facial processing, gesture processing, and so forth…“

Through the inevitable modelling and interaction with their peers, their parents and their teachers, children have many opportunities outside of lessons to develop and refine these communication skills. That’s not to say that some children with special needs might not need more support (e.g. children on the autistic spectrum may have trouble with eye-contact and conversational turn-taking), but for the overwhelming majority these skills inevitably develop as a normal part of growing up.

Interestingly, there’s some evidence that knowledge model teaching can also develop some of these skills. For example, empathy may benefit from reading literary fiction.

Given human propensity to rapidly develop the skills required to socially interact within complex groups without explicit teaching; it seems a poor use of the limited resources available for education to focus upon them in lessons.

Intrapersonal skills

Another core set of skills are those relating to the perception, monitoring and management of the ‘self’. The ATL document lists these examples:

“Educationists’ lists of intrapersonal skills typically include items such as: self-knowledge and self-esteem; self-management, motivation and personal goal-setting; decision-making; listening; negotiating.”

Again, it seems highly likely that many of these cognitive functions (rather perversely called non-cognitive in education literature) rely upon evolved mechanisms which help us operate in social groups. Geary suggests:

“The self schema is a long-term memory network of information that links together knowledge and beliefs about the self, including positive (accentuated) and negative (discounted) traits (e.g., friendliness), personal memories, self efficacy in various domains, and so on. Whether implicitly or explicitly represented, self schemas appear to regulate goal-related behaviors—specifically, where one focuses behavioral effort and whether or not one will persist in the face of failure (Sheeran & Orbell, 2000). Self-related regulation results from a combination of implicit and explicit processes that influence social comparisons, self-esteem, valuation of different forms of ability and interests, and the formation of social relationships (Drigotas, 2002).”

There is also a rather serious issue about trying to explicitly teach some of these skills. For example, it seems likely that attempting to manipulate children’s self-esteem doesn’t have the intended effects. Indeed, the most recent advice for raising self-esteem isn’t to teach it, but to encourage less ‘egocentrism’ as this Scientific American Mind article explains:

“The point here is not that you shouldn’t be ambitious or work toward meaningful ends. It is that you need a less egocentric reason for doing so. Instead of worrying about how you measure up, set your sights on helping your family, friends, or team or working toward the greater good. Try to lose yourself in a project or endeavor or focus on what you might learn from it rather than concentrating on what its outcome means about you.”

There are lots of opportunities within school life – outside of lessons – for children to find self-esteem through helping their school and wider community.

Another aspect of this is the role of motivation and mindset, which has been a recent focus for development within schools. Here the evidence appears much more positive – the benefits of a ‘growth mindset’ appear fairly robust and experimental techniques to manipulate mindset have shown some success. However, here again there is a need for caution. What works in small studies may well not scale up easily.

In short, I suggest that interventions related to changing the intrapersonal attributions or self-concept of students need detailed consideration of both the ethical issues and the methods by which interventions may be scaled successfully before they should be more widely adopted.

Thinking skills

The ATL document finally lists a set of what we might call generic ‘learning to learn’ type skills, which ostensibly should allow children to access any domain knowledge:

“There is some replication with interpersonal skills and there are others that truly belong here, but are often treated separately, perhaps in order to emphasise their importance. These are: thinking skills; learning skills; skills of creativity.”

There’s a genuine question over how best to teach creativity. For example, Geoff Petty suggests that the creative process is best fostered through a process of generating and then refining ideas that serve your goals. However, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that successful creative endeavours benefit from formal learning of the basics – whether in music, art, writing, or in science and mathematics.

On the other hand, there’s some fairly good evidence to suggest that there are learning skills which can be usefully developed through explicit teaching and act to raise student attainment. For example, a recent study published in Educational Research Review relates a meta-analysis of a large number of these learning strategies:

Donker et al (2014) Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis

The study examines 95 interventions (e.g. cognitive strategies like rehearsal and elaboration, management strategies like regulation of effort, motivation aspects like self-efficacy and goal orientation, and meta-cognitive strategies) examining the effects on writing, science, mathematics and comprehensive reading. Whilst all the strategies appeared to have positive effects on learning outcomes, they note that across all domains and ability groups meta-cognitive knowledge instruction appeared to have the most value.

The authors link these domain specific meta-cognitive strategies to the idea of self-regulated learning:

“Self-regulated learners are students who are capable of supporting their own learning processes by applying domain appropriate learning strategies (e.g., Boekaerts, 1997; Zimmerman, 1990, 1994). Self-regulated learning can be described as: ‘‘an active, constructive process whereby learners set goals for their learning and then attempt to monitor, regulate and control their cognition, motivation and behavior, guided and constrained by their goals and the contextual features in the environment’’ (Pintrich, 2000, p. 453). In short: students who are able to self-regulate their learning are active, responsible learners who act purposefully (i.e. use learning strategies) to achieve their academic goals. To this end, they need metacognitive knowledge; knowledge and awareness about their own cognition (Flavell, 1976, 1979).”

They further define these meta-cognitive strategies:

“Metacognitive strategies regulate students’ cognition by activating relevant cognitive approaches. As metacognitive strategies are linked to cognitive domains, they always involve a particular degree of learning content and can be considered as higher order strategies. Three subcategories related to the three phases of the learning process can be distinguished: planning, monitoring and evaluation (Schraw & Dennison, 1994).”

These three components of meta-cognition are worth detailing:

“Planning strategies are deployed at the start of a learning episode and include subprocesses such as goal setting and allocating resources. Examples of these strategies are making a plan, deciding upon the amount of time to spend on an activity, and choosing what to do first.

“Monitoring strategies are used for checking one’s comprehension. These strategies can be considered as continuous assessments of one’s learning and/or strategy use. Examples include self-questioning and changing the approach to a specific learning task if necessary, for instance, re-reading a passage if its’ meaning is not properly understood.

“After the learning process, evaluation strategies can be used in the analysis of one’s performance and the effectiveness of the learning methods. In writing, for example, reviewing a text is a strategy that might help improve the written text, while in mathematics it is important to check whether the answers found make sense in the context of the original problem.”

There are always limitations to meta-analysis (see here for examples) but they found evidence that these component skills raised academic performance. They explain this effect:

“By including this component in the intervention, students are not only taught which strategies to use and how to apply them (declarative knowledge) but also when and why to use them (procedural and conditional knowledge). This type of informed strategy instruction leads to a significantly larger degree of metacognitive engagement and is therefore more effective than a plain instruction of the application of learning strategies.”

What’s important to note here is that these are domain specific skills – i.e. explicitly developed through teaching of that subject. Here we have an important piece of evidence that suggests (in line with some other reviews of research) that learning strategies tend to be most effective when applied within subject domains rather than as generic strategies.


My concern is that many of the strategies and modalities of thinking championed by teachers in favour of a more skill-focused curriculum involve many biological primary abilities which develop naturally and do not require explicit teaching. That is not to say that lessons on body language, listening or self-management are harmful but simply, in many cases, an unnecessary opportunity cost given the value and scarcity of contact time with a teacher. Here the argument sides with the view that such skills are best ‘caught not taught’ in schools through high-quality extra-curricular opportunities.

The principle skills that do appear worth explicitly teaching are potentially the metacognitive knowledge strategies which appear to help children become self-regulated learners (which is what everyone wants!). However, given their domain specificity, there’s good reason to believe these can be developed effectively within traditional subject areas. Perhaps then the real challenge for project-based learning and similar innovations is to reliably demonstrate that they can develop these planning, monitoring and evaluation skills more quickly or more effectively than traditional subject-based teaching whilst not losing sight of subject specific knowledge we all know children need to succeed in school.

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5 Responses to What skills are worth teaching?

  1. Informative post, thank you. Sheds light on why some people see skills and knowledge as mutually exclusive, rather than both being essential.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bt0558 says:

    An interesting discussion. Always good to come at the thing from a slightly different angle.

    I believe it is often an individual’s understanding of the term “teaching” which confuses things. By definition I believe that skills cannot be directly taught, they can be acquired by practising their use. Often coaching can be useful to improve ones level of expertise in a particular skill.

    It is my view that all skills can be acquired to an extent without external feedback but that external feedback makes the acquisition process more efficient and often enables a higher level of proficiency given available resources.

    I think that teachers who are very inflexible in their view that teaching is all about knowledge often have a preference for a direct instruction sort of approach to teaching. As skills can only be acquired, it is not possible to teach them explicitly and therefore for these teachers it is not possible to teach skills.

    I have a different view of teaching. I believe in striving for autodidaxy. I believe the learner should be provided with an environment in which they can develop skills with coaching while at the same time gather knowledge via a range of approaches including but not exclusively direct instruction.

    I can see that a teacher who feels that it is their job to maximise the efficiency of knowledge acquisition via direct instruction might see it as impossible to “explicitly teach” skills and I would tend to agree.

    For me your post eloquently and elegantly illuminates the situation and now I just need to look up some of the references.

    Thank you


    • Thanks for the comments. Yes, I can see the position that whilst not attempting to explicitly teach some of these skills, creating an environment in which pupils can exercise them might help their development. My worry is that biological secondary knowledge (cultural knowledge which is difficult to develop like mathematics or writing) requires extensive teaching and practice time, plus feedback from an expert. So I’m yet to be convinced of the value of using lesson time to practice skills that will successfully develop anyway. It seems better to focus outside of lessons for opportunities to exercise these skills.

      However, I’m now fairly convinced that for some skills (like meta-cognition) there’s an argument for both explicit teaching and implicit opportunities within precious contact time. It’s not impossible that other skills would also benefit from development within lesson time – though I’m yet to see convincing evidence.


  3. Pingback: What’s important about subject knowledge? | Evidence into practice

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