Written By Kimmo Kumpulainen, Teacher and Co-Founder of SkillzzUp

Are we currently just teaching unconnected facts? What is the purpose of school and education in general? Is it to help us remember a huge amount of facts and figures? Is it just about graduating and providing degrees to our citizens? No, I do not think so.

The National Board of Education in Finland states in it’s educational policy: “The policy is built on the principles of lifelong learning and free education. Education is seen as a key to competitiveness and well-being of the society.” According to this policy we should provide our citizens the skills to be competitive and create well-being in to the far future. But are we teaching skills or just facts?

Time to say good bye to behavioristic learning?

Traditional way of teaching has been very behavioristic. One authority, such as a teacher or a creator of an on-line course, gives the facts to the students. After some time the authority tests the students with exams if they can repeat the facts the same way they were given. Many educators around the globe have noticed this problem and are trying to widen their teaching methods and evaluation styles.

Here is one article about professor David Christian and his Big History Course backed up by Bill Gates. “David Christian began wondering if he could apply this everything-is-connected idea to a larger scale: “I began thinking, Could I teach a course not of Russia but of humanity?” He soon became infatuated with the concept. “I remember the chain of thought,” he said. “I had to do prehistory, so I have to do some archaeology. But to do it seriously, I’m going to talk about how humans evolved, so, yikes, I’m in biology now. I thought: To do it seriously, I have to talk about how mammals evolved, how primates evolved. I have to go back to multi-celled organisms, I have to go back to primeval slime. And then I thought: I have to talk about how life was created, how life appeared on earth! I have to talk geology, the history of the planet. And so you can see, this is pushing me back and back and back, until I realized there’s a stopping point — which is the Big Bang.” He paused. “I thought, boy, would that be exciting to teach a course like this!”

In the same article Bob Bain states: “Most kids experience school as one damn course after another; there’s nothing to build connections between the courses that they take,” says Bob Bain, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan and an adviser to the Big History Project, who has helped devise much of the curriculum. “The average kid has no way to make sense between what happens with their first-period World History class and their second-period algebra class, third-period gym class, fourth-period literature — it’s all disconnected. It’s like if I were to give you a jigsaw puzzle and throw 500 pieces on the table and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m not going to show you the box top as to how they fit together. ”

Teaching skills and not just facts

So if we should teach skills and not just facts, what are those skills and how can we teach and evaluate them? The definition of skill in the Oxfordian Dictionary include:
[Noun] The ability to do something well; expertise: difficult work, taking great skill or A particular ability: the skills of cookery
[Verb] Train (a worker) to do a particular task: there is a lack of basic skilling

These definitions imply that a skill is a process of doing something that requires some background knowledge. Professional teachers have many ways to teach facts and skills by using real life situations or simulations. This way the student has to use various skills and previously learned facts to be able to work in the new situation. Let’s take a foreign language class as an example. A student has studied 10 new words related to food at home by reading a text book. In the school the teacher gives an assignment to talk about a topic “food related allergies” where you must use those new words. After a few practise sessions the next step could be using those in a real life situation or similar to it. I.e. teacher could make the students make a Skype call to each other – even to a another school, or even in a another country! The other students are playing a role of a restaurant waiter and the other students are clients making a table reservation for the evening. Teacher can “assign some allergies” to different students and they have to explain those to the restaurant to avoid problems.

Why just not repeat the words or write them down 100 times to a paper? In this situation a student used multiple skills. He used his skills to communicate through an online connection, he talked to a (strange!) person, he listened to the answers, he had to use the new words, he realised in what kind of situations he will need these words and what problems might arise if he did not understand those. He also had to be creative and use different vocabulary to explain the same thing with different words in case he did not remember the exact words.

So how can the teacher evaluate the different skills of the students?

  1. Teacher has to define the main skills to be learned during the course or during the next lessons. (I.e. online communication, personal interaction in foreign language, understanding foreign language related to food, creativity and general vocabulary in communication situation, teamwork.)
  2. Teacher can now plan their methods for teaching these skills and exercises where students are doing written, oral or action based exercises similar to real life.
  3. Teacher let students do their exercises and follow individual students during lessons. Tthis obviously requires that the teacher knows the students by name or has pictures of them.
  4. Teacher documents all the skills of individual students seen during the exercises. Also the negative skills are documented. (i.e. Student makes a lot of noise and distracts others and thus shows poor teamworking skills.). This will also help the teacher to separate the (bad) behaviour and the (possibly great) core skills of individual students.
  5. Teacher should communicate these skill assessments to students soon after the exercises so the students would know what skills are on a good level and what needs still to be practiced more.

This kind of assessment would bring instant feedback to students and it would be easier for teachers and students to talk about skills themselves and not just test grades or bad behaviour. Students can still remember what they did and they can understand better why they got a C- in vocabulary but B+ on communication skills. This real time evaluation and feedback from a experienced professional is the basis for understanding the real skills of any individual. I support online courses but only as a source of self orientated studying of abstract concepts which should then be evaluated in real life situations by a teacher.  This kind of evaluation could be done face to face after a lesson or on paper slips or through email, but i would take teachers a great deal of time.

SkillzzUp is designed to help teachers to do this during their lessons with few clicks and communicate all their observations to every student individually. I truly hope we can start teaching and evaluating skills instead of facts and standardized tests. That way we truly give our students the skills for a lifelong learning, creating competitiveness and well-being to themselves and our societies.