Rant: 2 Essential Skills Students Probably Won't Learn at School (But CAN Learn Online)

Paper cutout of kids holding hands
Success in school comes from learning how to learn and understanding how to deliver within the context of the school structure. Learning how to learn isn't easy to accomplish, since public schools often seem focused on the output (moving kids up and out). In fact, we've noticed that the standard classroom environment and teaching approaches just don't seem to cater to how boys learn (nothing new here).

The Dude's own frustration and boredom last year highlighted to hubby and I that we need to take an active role in his education, something we plan to continue throughout his school career. It also highlighted that we needed to help him develop two essential skills that kids need for school, which don't necessarily happen organically for all kids.

1. Coping with unstructured time: Planning in Open World Games

It's amazing how a kid who can figure out unstructured play time just couldn't wrap his head around unstructured class time. In fact, he often spent it completely lost, without a clue where to start his work (or pick up from where he left off). It turns out he was completely overwhelmed by the idea of unstructured work time or vague instructions like, "take your project out and work on it".

So, hubby and I spent a good amount of time last year helping the Dude develop learning strategies, such as develop plans for unstructured work. By assigning his own structure to open projects, he could take comfort in having some boundaries and benefit from a clear idea of what he needed to accomplish in the time provided. We also checked in frequently with his teachers and developed joint work plans to further guide him. In the end, it helped a lot and we plan to continue reinforcing the approach this year.

As I mentioned yesterday, in addition to his Lego obsession, the Dude loves to play Minecraft. Both of these forms of play are a great way to reinforce planning skills: identify requirements and needs, find resources and then build. By pointing out to him that he is essentially doing what he needs to do at school, he can see that using a formal planning approach has real-life implications. Not to mention, he hears it as positive reinforcement of play and video games (whatever gets him motivated ;) Open world games provide kids opportunities to learn planning and organizing in a completely different context from school.

The modern school system still seems better suited for the factory economy in which it was originally created, and less supportive of producing knowledge workers (which is what a good portion of students will end up being when they enter the workforce). In an information economy, we have to be able to handle self-directed work and produce results without clear direction. Figuring out unstructured time is a skill that will serve the Dude well in the workplace of the future as companies become more decentralized and workplaces become more organic.

2. Searching for information: Mastering the Google

Now, as opposed to when we were kids, self-sufficience doesn't mean pulling an encyclopedia or dictionary off the shelf. It means looking things up online and understanding how to identify reliable sources of information.

I honestly believe that nowadays, search is a life skill. (Case-in-point: Googling so ubiquitous, it's become a verb.)

At the Dude's school, learning to use the library is treated as part of the curriculum (is this standard?). I love that the kids need to learn to use lookup systems, ask the librarian questions and then locate books on their own. That's a fantastic first step.

But when it comes to answering random questions or getting sources for a class project, we ask the magical Interwebs for help. And this is where I think kids need support, guidance and instruction. According to research done by Lynda M. Duke and Andrew D. Asher of the ERIAL project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries):
Many (but not all) students are not gaining the information literacy skills in college that they will need in their future careers. This isn’t just about doing academic research, but also about being a savvy, reflective, and critical consumers of information,” said Dr Asher, adding that most students were working hard and doing their best in difficult circumstances. - Phys.org
Students who attempted to do research both in libraries and online were shown to be deficient in effectively locating relevant resources. They couldn't complete advanced searches, had trouble sifting through massive lists of results and a complete lack of understanding about how search engines work in the first place.

I'm not sure if schools are focusing on search as a skill, but I think it should be part of the curriculum (if not in the classroom, then at home). Obviously, parental controls and/or supervision are required to oversee that only appropriate links are clicked, but teaching students independent searching and critical thinking about results are excellent life skills never taught too early IMHO. (Ok,ok, maybe grade 1 is a good time to start.)


And you, do you agree that these two skills are core to learning? Which do you focus on for school success? Leave a comment or rant away...