For Teachers – How to Teach the Critical Skills

My admiration for those who have chosen a teaching career is high. Many of my own teachers – K-12 and through college have been lifetime role models for me. Nearly all were very good and dedicated to their profession.

The challenges faced by teachers these days are enormous,
• The hours are long;
• The pay is low;
• The classes are large;
• The curriculum is demanding;
• Teacher homework – grading papers and preparing for the next day are gueling;
• Discipline is difficult;
• Technology is always changing;
• Funding is scarce.

Despite these challenges, dedicated teachers work every day to enhance the learning experience of their students. Their rewards are quite simple in that they receive a great deal of personal satisfaction knowing that they are influencing the lives of young people and preparing them to face the future with confidence. For some students, their teachers are role models for them to emulate.

I think back to some of the great teachers I had and the meaningful learning experiences they provided. Fresh in my mind is my physics teacher who was teaching us Newton’s laws of motion. He not only taught us what they were, he explained how they could be applied. This motivated a friend and me to do an experiment challenging the laws of motion to see if we could determine the height of a high bridge north of the town in which we lived.

We went to the bridge one Saturday morning armed only with a good stopwatch. We collected a couple dozen rocks of similar shape – but not of the same size – and positioned ourselves on the bridge high above the small creek below. We would hold a rock over the bridge, and at the count of three would simultaneously drop the rock and start the stopwatch. When we would see the splash of the rock hitting the creek below a few seconds later, we would stop the watch and record the time it took from releasing the rock until impact in the water. With the two dozen times, we calculated an average and then, using the gravitational constant for the area, calculated the height of the bridge. 125 feet from the bridge to the water.

We presented our findings to the class the following Monday and what I remember most was the look of satisfaction and pleasure on our teacher’s face. Not only did we understand what he was talking about in terms of concept, we actually put the theory to work and provided results. We demonstrated that we knew not only the “what,” but the “hows” and the “whys.” I don’t recall if we received any sort of grade for the effort, but I will never forget the experiment, how we did it, how it worked, and our results. Whenever I see that bridge now, I can tell all my friends the actual height of the bridge with confidence.

That was a learning experience using the critical skills and, quite frankly, an application of what teachers can do in implementing the Common Core Standards. The learning was real and long lasting.

I can also remember clearly a learning experience from the fifth grade. It was near Lincoln’s birthday and our teacher was discussing with us the battle of Gettysburg, it’s impact on the Civil War, and that President Lincoln had seen fit to go to Gettysburg to give a speech. Of course we read the Gettysburg Address out loud – several times as I recall – and the teacher was explaining to us how President Lincoln had communicated so much in such a short address. I remember that she told us that we didn’t need a lot of words to communicate what we wanted to say, and to this day I always think of her when pondering what to either talk about or write. Keep it short – and keep it meaningful.

The following Sunday when I was attending church (my mother forced me to attend the regular service and hear the sermon) the minister was speaking about President Lincoln. During his sermon, he told the congregation, “I’ll bet there isn’t anyone here who can tell me 10 things about President Lincoln.” I heard that – and, sitting near the front row – simply raised my hand. That stopped the minister in his tracks and created a chuckle from the congregation. After a pause, he went on with his sermon – and I have forgotten what he talked about. After the service, the minister told my mother that he was glad that at least one person was listening!

The reason I remember these things so clearly is that both teachers had their students engaged in discussion during the class. The teachers would not simply “tell” us about these things; rather, he/she asked the students questions and listened to what they had to say in response. Then he/she would comment and either expand on what the student said or ask another student for his/her comments. To me, that was very effective teaching and, upon reflection, it is clear to me that each was teaching not only content – but the critical skills as well.

Teaching those critical skills is difficult, and the process can be somewhat unfamiliar and even strange to some teachers. Such teaching not only includes the “what” about things, it includes the “how” and the “why.” Not only does teaching such skills require the instructor to know and understand the content, but he/she must be able to engage the class in discussion and build upon student comments as well as keep the discussion on point. Unfortunately many of our teachers are not equipped to practice this sort of teaching.

Teaching the communication skills is much more than just having students read aloud or listen to a lecture. It requires getting the students to express their views – particularly in oral communications in class. Teachers must establish an environment where students are encouraged to speak, and when they speak they will not be laughed at or ridiculed. Such an environment must be safe.

Teaching the writing skill is not only the realm of the English or Language Arts teacher, but of others as well. Students can always be asked to summarize what they have learned on one sheet of paper – using complete sentences, of course. One Social Studies teacher whom I know reserves the last five minutes of each class to enable the students to write down on one sheet of paper the three or four essential things that they learned during the class. She then collects the papers at the end of the class and gives them back the next day. Not only does this reinforce the learning of content, but it also gives students the practice of writing.

Many teachers are highly creative and teach the production skill easily. All it takes is to have students grasp an idea to either make or create something, and then let them do it with encouragement along the way. Teachers should always point out to the students that they can make their ideas real – they can actually turn their ideas – within reason of course – into reality.

In order to teach the information skill, teachers must have a good grasp of today’s internet technology and the power of such search engines as Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Most likely they will find the students quite able to use the internet, so asking for and finding information is quite easy. The trick is to teach the students how to discriminate between that information which is true, that which is questionable, and that which is completely false. They should be taught to at least question the validity of the information they receive – whether they get it off the internet, from books or magazines, from newspapers, or from others. The goal is to teach them to not believe everything they read or hear, but to question its truth and validity before actually using the information to draw any sort of conclusion from it.
Teaching the analytical skill – critical thinking – is an everyday job. Students should be taught to be familiar with the concept of “P” → “Q” ( P implies Q ) and that they can develop findings from the information they know to be true and ultimately draw conclusions from their findings. Just doing a little bit of this each day teaches a lot of critical thinking over time. Such critical thinking becomes habit forming and a way of life that will serve them well.

Interpersonal (teamwork) skills are taught indirectly. Aside from extracurricular activities and team sports, the traditional academic classroom teacher can have students work in groups on a project and/or work together toward presenting something in class. Encourage the students to contribute to the team, to listen attentively to the ideas of others, and to share the responsibility of completing the project. As a follow up activity, a teacher can have the students reflect on what they did as a team and how others contributed positively to the outcome.

Regarding the technology skill, it might be appropriate in some instances to have the students teaching the class! Students these days have unimaginable skills using the computer and various mobile devices; but the technology skill is focused on having students understand how to select the right kind of technology to solve a problem – not just to demonstrate facility in computer skills.

In the US Labor Department publication, Teaching the SCANS Competencies, suggested ways of teaching the technology skill are as follows:
In English/Writing:
Write an article showing the relationship between technology and the environment. Use word processing to write and edit papers after receiving teacher feedback.
In Mathematics:
Read manuals for several data-processing programs and write a memo recommending the best programs to handle a series of mathematical situations.
In Science:
Calibrate a scale to weigh accurate portions of chemicals for an experiment. Trace the development of this technology from earliest uses to today.
In Social Studies/Geography:
Research and report on the development and functions of the seismograph and its role in earthquake prediction and detection.
In History:
Analyze the effects of wars on technological development. Use computer graphics to plot the relationship of the country’s economic growth to periods of peace and war.
Source: US Dept of Labor; Teaching the SCANS Competencies
To me, these are modest examples of incorporating some of the critical skills into the academic curriculum. There are, of course, countless others and the only limitation is the individual teacher’s imagination to create problems and ensure that they are connected to some meaningful skill goal as well as to enhance the academic content learning experience.

Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an intensive teaching method where students are engaged as members of a team to address a real world problem, conducting investigations, collecting appropriate information, conducting proper analyses, developing findings, conclusions and recommendations, and presenting their results in written and oral form. PBL is the most comprehensive (and I think effective) way to teach the critical skills. The kind of PBL exercise I recommend most is the Field Study which is described elsewhere in this book as well as covered extensively on the field study blog ( ).

Each of the skills is addressed in a field study or most PBL projects.

• Communications – Students must listen in order to capture the essence of the problem or issue to be addressed, write a confirmation letter articulating their approach to the problem and what they will deliver, write a report detailing their findings, conclusions and recommendations, and present the report orally.

• Production – Students must make the journey from their articulation of the problem all the way through to a final report presenting their results.

• Information – Students must gather information from internet sources, library, or through interviews regarding the issues they must address. They must prepare and use interview guides where interviews are appropriate. They must take notes and summarize each interview regarding. They must organize their data in order to conduct a team analysis.

• Analytical – Students must analyze their collected information and develop their findings, conclusions and recommendations based on that information and ensure that the information on which they are basing their analysis is accurate and true.

• Interpersonal – Students must work collaboratively as a team in all phases of the project.

• Technology – Students must select and use the appropriate technology to conduct their analysis, write their report, and present the report orally.

• Time Management – Students must prepare a work plan (Gantt Chart) to budget their time, set deadlines, and complete the project on time.

Simple PBL exercises are relatively easy for a teacher to conduct; however, a field study takes considerably more time and effort, and the teacher should be well-prepared and knowledgeable about how such studies are conducted before embarking on such a project. Field studies are by far the most comprehensive of all PBL exercises, and it is common to find such projects being conducted at the college graduate level such as the Harvard Business School. However, experience has demonstrated clearly that high school students – properly guided – are totally capable of conducting such projects.

These are the kinds of projects that were featured in Teaching the SCANS Competencies.



Please feel free to leave a comment and share your views!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s