Learning in Action: The Advantages of a Skills-Forward Curriculum

There are many critics of the prevalent system of education, which equates learning with the accumulation of content. But what replaces this method, and how is it any better?

In Quest Forward Learning, we incorporate basic principles of learning with a vision of graduates who are equipped to flourish and contribute value to their greater communities. In building a curriculum to foster this type of learning, we’ve adhered to a model that places a priority on the development of skills that complement critical concepts and facts. An earlier blog post describes how this approach works. This method is particularly applicable to educating proactive, creative, and effective community members.

Skills are Empowering

In a content-based curriculum, students are drilled to accumulate a comprehensive body of knowledge, which they might later consult if they 1) retain the information and 2) happen to form related goals. A skills-forward curriculum, by contrast, prioritizes the development of new capabilities. Quest Forward Learning places a priority on ensuring that students achieve their goals, which they set for themselves throughout the learning process. Instead of passively absorbing the platform of Woodrow Wilson’s initial presidential campaign, for instance, students might focus on developing the skill of analyzing symbols and slogans in a way they might use on contemporary imagery, political or otherwise. (Along the way, of course, they’ll learn about the related issues confronting the U.S. in 1912.) Skills of this sort, large and small, empower students to act in the world, drawing upon their individual interests and goals.

A skills-forward curriculum also teaches students how to learn effectively. Researching, inquiring, asking questions, experimenting, looking for causes, solving problems, and revising one’s work are foundations in the repertoire of a student who can efficiently and reliably learn skills and concepts that might end up being important to future projects or careers. This kind of curriculum occupies a natural place in secondary education.  

Skills are Relevant—and Flexible

Learning without a connection to existing knowledge and interests, and with no distinct rationale, can be demotivating. Facts and concepts from traditional curricula run exactly this risk: If we take for granted that early high-school students need to learn about cellular respiration, the tendency is to teach them just that, with lots of memorization and no particular connection to their own lives. Well-chosen skills—skills taken from a framework focused on empowering students in their work and lives—offer a route to relevance in cases like this.

In a course driven by content-focused objectives, students’ mastery of material competes with how much progress is made through the material. As the school year advances, there is little mechanism for students to spend more time on problematic concepts. When skills become the central objectives, by contrast, students (and teachers) can revisit applicable needed skills throughout the course, without disrupting projects, classwide work, or the course’s concepts and themes. Similarly, teachers and schools can make room to focus on favored or required content while still advancing the development of skills. Students can hone their skills in providing evidence for an argument or in strategies of data analysis, for instance, in a wide range of settings. A curriculum that focuses on skills and builds in the appropriate support for adjustment can avoid becoming an obstacle to learning.

Putting Knowledge into Action

Even students who thrive on assimilating facts and bodies of knowledge are not necessarily well served by an education that is focused on doing so. Consistent with the mandate of empowering students, Quest Forward Learning encourages students to innovate, take initiative, and solve problems. To fulfill these goals, students must put what they learn into action. When building skills is the priority, the concepts that are uncovered and explored along the way are embedded in action. Students discover, manipulate, and use them to make arguments and solve problems. Instead of relying on content-driven learning, Quest Forward Academy students focus on  skill-building, which fosters their active engagement with their learning.

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