1. Keep it simple
The category of ‘essential skills’ can be incredibly broad, and open to interpretation – even more so if you think about overlapping definitions like enterprise, employability or life competencies. For students to make progress they need real clarity. Use a consistent set of eight skills, like those in the Skills Builder Framework, which are relevant for learning in school, for college or university, and for employers: Teamwork and Leadership; Listening and Presenting; Creativity and Problem-solving; Aiming High and Staying Positive. Unlike broader attributes or characteristics, these are tangible, teachable and measurable.
2. Start young and keep going
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing essential skills as interchangeable with employability, and therefore only relevant to the oldest students. I’ve also seen the other challenge – that they are nudged out once exams loom. However, these skills need to be built and refined over a long period of time, because they are vital, but complex. Developing them will enhance learning in the classroom and in turn, help your pupils articulate ideas, collaborate well with peers, and work consistently towards goals – all supporting their academic achievement.
3. Measure it
We would not start teaching anything else without a good sense of what our students can already do, and what the next steps are for them. It is exactly the same with essential skills. Each one is made up of steps: for example, ‘teamwork’ includes the ability to take turns, to structure a meeting, to make thoughtful contributions, to work through conflicts, and to evaluate team performance. Once we know which steps students have secured, we can focus efforts on the next – and celebrate progress over time, too.
4. Teach explicitly
Sometimes we treat essential skills as faintly mysterious, and just hope that they can be built through enough activities. However, this is a pretty inefficient approach. Rather than simply practising dozens of presentations in the hope that students guess their way to improvements, for example, it’s much better to teach key strategies around structuring communication, audience awareness, and delivery techniques. A snappy ten minutes of direct instruction followed by thoughtful practice and reflection is a deliberate, efficient and effective way of building skills.
5. Keep practising
Cognitive science has highlighted the importance of regular reinforcement and acceptance of some forgetting as a step towards really solidifying knowledge and skills. It is the same here – no matter how effective a single workshop, without ongoing reinforcement the learning will never stick. What we want is that ultimately, these essential skills are just second nature to students; that they become implicit. But we can only get there by reinforcing them at every opportunity.
6. Bring it to life
While essential skills are helpful in an educational setting, they are also core enablers beyond that. We should always have an eye on building their transferability – and the best way to do that is to use them in many contexts. Part of this is linking learning between extracurricular activities and the classroom. Connecting with the world beyond school is also very powerful. That might mean inviting speakers in to talk about the role of essential skills in their careers, or taking students out into the working world to visit employers.
Tom Ravenscroft is the founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise and the Skills Builder Partnership (www. skillsbuilder.org)