Skills Don’t Have To Be “Extra”

Years ago I worked in a middle school in Chicago that had a really incredible media arts program. Professional filmmakers, roboticists, musicians, and game designers primarily ran the program through after school clubs, elective courses, and collaborations with teachers at the school. One of the projects students worked on in a science class was to create their own simulation of the water cycle. That’s right – they created the simulation and then demonstrated it for the class. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure they used Scratch or some other visual programming software.  I’ve never seen kids so in to the water cycle! There was no question that this project was about developing their skills. They needed to investigate the water cycle, be creative, and effectively communicate the cycle to others. And of course, they needed to develop their programming skills. This project was relevant for students, because the skills were transparent and transferable to other things students cared about – like making games, creating stories, and sharing things they make with friends.

The benefits of focusing on skills don’t start after graduation. They start immediately.

Making skills a priority in your classroom can make learning more relevant, engaging, and meaningful for students. Students — especially teenagers — tend to enjoy school more when they feel like it’s valuable and appropriately challenging, and there’s decades of research findings that support this observation (e.g., Ainley & Hidi, 2014; Li, 2022). Teachers at Quest Forward Academies in Omaha and Santa Rosa shared some of the benefits they’ve seen from focusing on skills. 

Focusing on skills allows the student to focus more on the specific things they need to improve rather than what grade they will receive. I have seen a student step back and deliberately try to identify patterns in problem-solving rather than focusing on a grade or standard.
– Nicholas Gilmore, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa

Focusing on skills has allowed me to be more flexible and adaptive to my students’ needs. I’m teaching them how to think critically and be more independent instead of making them memorize facts and punishing them if they want to be creative. Students are able to tap into their interests because the skills apply universally and will continue to be useful after graduation. Plus, it requires me to be more creative right alongside them!
– Lucas Rencher, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Omaha

[Focusing on skills] has been more helpful than anything and hasn’t taken away from the other aspects of lesson planning – rather, it has enhanced it for the better.
– Mac Ketchum, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa

Not only do teachers recognize the value, but students do as well:

Focusing on skills means using higher thinking skills to evaluate what I am doing instead of just doing it. Focusing on skills allows me to develop abilities that help me in the real world.
– Hannah, student at Quest Forward Academy Omaha

I love feeling accomplished, knowing that the knowledge I’m absorbing is being put to good use with a skill, rather than just the knowledge in and of itself. Learning is being able to identify how you can put wisdom into function, rather than memorizing the nitty gritty.
– Aster, student at Quest Forward Academy Omaha


Skills-Forward teaching and learning don’t require the teacher to change everything they do.

I’ve heard many teachers say they don’t have time to focus on skills or they have other priorities (like standards) that have to come first. That makes sense. Teachers have very little spare time and a ridiculous amount of responsibilities; but, it is possible to meet those demands and still make skills a focus in the classroom. 

Start by considering this: skills are not an extra thing for you to try and implement. Most likely, you’re already incorporating skills in your classroom, even if you don’t explicitly talk about them or make them the priority yet. And you can take a skills-based approach and still cover required standards. You don’t have to choose between one and the other.

More often than not, it is about discovering the skills that are already in your content rather than creating something entirely new.
– Kyle Haselton, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa

Being skills-forward doesn’t mean content falls to the wayside, but it’s used as a tool to practice skills rather than test their ability to memorize lines.
– Lucas Rencher, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Omaha

Teaching focus skills may require dedicated time, especially in the beginning of the year. As students get familiar with the idea of practicing skills, they will largely progress naturally as they continue completing assignments and projects. The definitions of skills do not change over a single academic year, so there is limited teaching time required to get students started on their learning progressions. There are also tangible benefits for teachers from effective skills instruction, including increased executive function for students and easier classroom management. They also increase a student’s confidence and ability to complete difficult tasks.
– Ryan Lee, teacher at Quest Forward Academy Omaha

What skills do you and students already focus on in your classes? What skills would you like to focus on more? Start thinking about your responses to these questions, and in my next post, I’ll share initial steps you can take to put the focus on skills.


  1. Ainley, M., and Hidi, S. (2014). “Interest and enjoyment,” in International Handbook of Emotions in Education, eds R. Pekrun and L. Linnenbrink Garcia (New York, NY: Routledge), 205–227.
  2. Li, H. (2022). Classroom Enjoyment: Relations With EFL Students’ Disengagement and Burnout. Frontiers Psychology, 13.

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