Student engagement dramatically falls from middle school to high school. According to a massive survey of US and Canadian students, Gallup found almost ‘three quarters of all surveyed fifth-grade students’ are engaged, while only ‘one-third of surveyed students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades are engaged”.
Yes, high schoolers are growing outside of the classroom, participating in sports, making friendships (many of them lifelong), and exploring interests, so school seems unappealing, too structured. But ideally (in my opinion), the percentage of engaged students remains somewhat stable from middle school to high school.
A small disclaimer, the high school model might not work for everyone and does not have to. Students who work towards a career outside of school or align themselves with a skilled trade might never get engaged in high school. For example, a programmer/ hacker who does a lot of coding in his or her free time still secures a future career (moreover, the standard high school program still lags what is offered in extracurricular activities related to programming). Another example are students who are working while in high school; hopefully they get the necessary skills for future growth (ideally with the help of a mentor).
Why are students becoming so disengaged when learning becomes so critical to their future success, when they must make mature decisions of what skills they need and how to acquire and them?
Something I have been proposing for years: teenage students get self and socially aware. They are impressionable and after high school make one of the biggest decisions of their life. (In the context of Skills Based Approach, during the planning stage, students identify an evolving set of skills and an action plan to acquire them. Self-discovery might come from a game, test, simulation, etc.)
There is considerable growth in resources to identify personal learning and career tracks. One type is a game or VR to simulate actual experiences. Knack is making considerable headway in this area. Another type is to collect data/content from your everyday experiences (big data) and then crunch out the analytics. A teenager using FitBit devices might identify behaviors or tendencies worth developing. Or a teenager might analyze their posts in social media to identify personality traits (FiveLabs).
Gallup identifies six ways to keep kids excited about school: create hope; foster talent; care a lot; recognize creative teachers and teaching; have fun; and model engagement. Self-discovery is one step forward. Personalized, adaptive learning is another step forward. Competency based learning removes a ‘seat time’ contingency and allows for underperforming students to get more help, average students choose how much time to spend learning, and overachieving students to move on when ready. Games, VR, and experiential learning is a leap forward. This is what is going to make learning fun. (Skills Label™ is a display to express learning expectations and outcome for any discrete task. Teachers can create labels for each of these learning types.)
These poor engagement numbers bother me as I feel lifelong learning is the best way to achieve (career) happiness. High school is one time in a person’s life dedicated to learning, exploration, and personal and social growth. With such an investment, seems wasteful to have two-thirds of students not engaged at school. Skills Culture is a mindset where students are motivated to learn and apply skills, perhaps one lens to help improve these low engagement numbers. With a Skills Culture:
A Growth Mindset. Students are motivated. Most students feel they can learn skills if they put in the necessary time and effort.
Personalized. There is required learning. But otherwise, students work on their own evolving skill set. Students learn their own way.
Experiential Learning. Learn to practice and apply skills. Students get motivated on actually applying their knowledge.
I have always had a broad perspective of skills, often depicting them as the foundation of learning and verb of knowledge (phases I have used over the years). I understand my perspective is not shared by everyone (yet), though it is gaining momentum. Thought it might be useful to make a case for my all-in investment with skills, competencies, and related methods and applications.
A few years back, I searched and got my hands on an unscrubbed database of skills. It had about 4,500 skills. Since then, I have been slowly rebuilding the database to add definitions, categories, and incorporating them into a search. The benefit is I have a single database feeding each of the Skills applications: Skills Based Approach℠, Skills Label™, and Skill Syllabi℠; practitioners and learners work with the same set of skills. It is a never-ending process as skills are being added all the time.
Often when a new technology is introduced, there are also new associated skill(s). A great example is mobile internet and cloud computing and all the skills associated with using this technology. According to Future of Jobs survey “mobile internet, cloud technology” (22%) is the top technologic drivers already impacting employees’ skills. Big data, processing power, new energy supplies and technologies, internet of things and sharing economy are other drivers mentioned in the survey.
A great resource to understand the demand for new skills is the Future Work Skills 2020, which identified some of the emerging transferable skills (such as transdisciplinary, cognitive load management, cross cultural competency, virtual collaboration, design mindset, social intelligence, sense making, and computational thinking).
The chart above shows a sample from the database. There are five skill types, with a total and percent representation in this sample. The chart is meant to show proportion of skills assigned to each type and introduce five skill types.
Technical skills are what most people think of when talking about skills. They are unique to a subject or discipline, which we apply in a career and sometimes work towards mastery in. Of course, this type of skill holds the largest share, has the most new skills added, and has the biggest swings in demand for related skills.
Transferable skills transcend across disciplines and subjects. Theses skills are becoming increasingly important as workers are changing careers more frequently. Building competencies with these skills makes it easier to fill skill gaps when pivoting into another career.
Soft skills are communication and interpersonal skills and behaviors. Like any other skill, we can deliberately practice them in our experiences. Many significant practitioners (leaders and managers too), are saying soft skills will have more of an impact on success than technical skills. (I am a big fan of Travis Bradberry’s work on emotional intelligence.)
Thinking skills are the foundation of learning gained from education and higher education. With proper thinking skills, many of the technical and transferable skill can be learned. Thinking skills also make life more meaningful and allow for persons to interpret arts and the humanities. (In his book) Derrick Bok says: “professors almost unanimously agree teaching students to think critically is the benchmark of higher education”. Finally, these 8 skills do not change much so it is critical is to understand the methods and application behind them.
Art skills are those related to arts and the humanities. There is a lot of skill required to become an expert in these fields. Some is acquired through application and some through natural talent or inspiration. Skills are also needed in the interpretation of arts and humanities. Understand the slight change from STEM to STEAM, a worthy addendum.
Occupations or specialties are changing too fast: “The most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.” The Future of Jobs – World Economic Forum
Skills are tangible, something to talk about. They are: Definable, standardized, portable, searchable, measurable, and flexible.
Skills are the ‘verb’ in knowledge. It is the action part. Skills define how we think, converse, problem solve, create, engineer, write, debate, play and so on. They are the underlying foundation of all learning.
Displacement of jobs due to automation and AI. Need to build skills unique to human capabilities. Identify and acquire skills that complement these new technologies. “Everything that can be automated will be automated.” (Pew Research Digital Life in 2025)
In part, I came up with the name “Skills Culture” as a rip from “Talent Culture” – a website I have been following for years. Talent Culture is an edgy, smart concept (career, leadership, and workplace advice) directed towards sophisticated white collar workers; Megan Brio does a great job. (Still in the early stages, but I might try to build Skills Culture in a similar way – a useful blog.) Whenever I hear the word talent, I find a way to pit talent versus skills – in conflict with each other. This is what got me thinking of a Skills Culture as a philosophy or mindset for much of my work on skills over the years.
I got the domain www.skillsculture.com (so I know the concept was somewhat novel). I googled “skills culture”, which returned a Facebook page of an organization in India. Some of our interpretations of a skills culture are similar, though their work focuses on underprivileged students in education. I clearly see the advantages in emphasizing skill acquisition with less structured schools. But I have always had a much broader view, focusing on education and higher education students and young professionals.
Thinking about educational systems, a Skills Culture seems aligned to an apprenticeship model. Once students find a career track, they learn specific skills in the classroom and apply them in experiences; sometimes working towards mastery. There is gaining traction for apprenticeships in the US. These “new age apprenticeships” represent many disciplines (not limited to skilled trades) and do not designate a lifetime career.
In fact, this less strict adherence to careers is a key differentiator of a Skills Culture. With Skills Based Approach (an engine behind Skills Culture), a student or professional works with an evolving skill set and may pivot towards another career instantaneously – assess current and needed skills, identify gaps, and acquire needed skills. So, working in skills makes transitions fluent.
Working with a Skills Culture addresses all skills (not just technical skills). I suggest students build strong foundational thinking skills, which give them a basis for learning technical skills. Thinking skills also make interpreting humanities and arts meaningful. Students learn ‘soft skills’, which becomes more important than technical skills as we experience a rise in automation, some experts argue.
A Skills Culture is about learning new skills ad hoc, whether for personal or professional motivations. It might take 20 hours to learn a skill for a student’s own needs. The whole movement towards micro learning works best with skills and competencies. Personally, I see no reason why a student or professional does not give learning a skill a chance.
Every experience is an opportunity to apply skills, therefore experiential learning is a key component of a Skills Culture.
Here are some other aspects of a “Skills Culture”:
Working with talents involves a fixed mindset: “I have these talents, so this is what I should be doing”. Working with skills involves a growth mindset: “I want to try this skill. If I put the time and deliberate practice toward learning the skill, there is a good chance I will be successful”.
Put a list of talents next to a list of skills, there is considerable overlap between the actual names. It is all about the connotation. Talents are natural abilities. Skills are acquired through experiences.
Dealing with skills and competencies, and underlying methods and applications is more precise than talking about talents.
A super talented professional is also a master of related skills. Someone who has talent will gravitate towards learning related skills; it makes sense.
Everyone must acquire skills, regardless of your collar: blue, white, or hoody. A Skills Culture (as a mindset) is useful for anyone, regardless of their class or education / career stage.
Skills Based Approach is meant to simplify. Students and professionals work with an evolving skill set and constantly cycles through four stages to stay relevant. There are many strategies for education and career planning, one of them is about becoming self and socially aware before making any decisions.
Take any results, translate them to skills and create a plan to move forward.
Intelligences. When I think of intelligences, I think of cognitive, emotional, creative, and contextual (but there are other interpretations). Last week (05/2017) Bill Gates mentioned how students should consider one of nine intelligences as they plan their career. Regardless of the source, figure out what intelligences you have a natural aptitude, then translate into skills and an action plan to build the skills.
Gallup Strengths. Gallup has been working on improving employment engagement, leadership, and team building for decades. Their surveys resonate with a nationwide audience. One of their services is StrengthFinder, where users take online tests to discover their top strengths (weaknesses too). (I think) there is something exhilarating about discovering your strengths and sharing them with your advocates – team members, mentors, coworkers, etc. Everyone signals to each other: “this is what I do best”.
The advantage in mapping your strengths to skills is: “putting your best foot forward”. I took the test once while working towards an MBA and again ten years later, surprised to get the same results. My top strengths are learner and enterpriser. For me, my strengths fit precisely with my skills: business management, business strategy, idea generation, technical writing, and research.
Jung Personality Types / Holland Occupational Themes. Myer Briggs is a gold standard for testing for Carl Jung personality types. These tests have been around for forty to fifty years. Before the test was on paper, now there are many variants you can take online in about twenty minutes. Tests for Holland Occupational themes are focused on career themes.
Knack Talents. Play games to identify disciplines or area of expertise to pursue, ‘knacks’. There are advantages in playing games to determine possible careers. They involve simulation (as opposed to self-assessments) and are supposed to be fun (not a boring multiple choice test).
Simply plug in any new technologies and applications into Skills Based Approach to get desired results.
For the last few years, I have been paying attention to Gallup’s survey on ‘employee engagement’. The number of ‘engaged workers’ is around 33 percent this year. But I was astonished to learn that ‘employee engagement’ has been between 26 and 33 percent for the last 16 years (State of the American Workplace).
There will always be a handful of employees who are not engaged because they choose to sacrifice for: family, leisure time, money, or some other reason. There are also jobs that are impossible to be engaged in. But should disengaged employees represent two thirds of the workforce?
From a purely business point of view, employers should invest time, resources, and funding towards employee engagement; it affects the bottom line. Highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share (another Gallup poll). Of course, it benefits the community too.
What is the cause of disengaged employees? According to Gallup, some of the reasons include: underemployment, lack of career development, and work and/or company has no purpose.
Underemployment happens for many reasons. Many fresh college graduates are required to do grunt work, it can serve as a rite of passage (something I keenly remember). Sometimes there is not an opportunity for progress at a particular time. Skills Based Approach is helpful in two ways. First, users plan to acquire skills (outside of work, if necessary) to guarantee moving forward. The best remedy for underemployment is to make it temporary. Second, users find ways to build skills by volunteering for other tasks. (A basic example: Someone is a barrister at a coffee shop, but is working to be a web developer; volunteer to build and/or manage the coffee shop’s website.)
To address lack of career development, management must understand what an employee has and wants to accomplish and provide tangible investment to help the employee reach his or her goals. Skills Based Approach is an effective platform for performance reviews and progress reports. A worker’s progress is captured in a series of tasks and stacked credentials, and management takes ‘co-pilot’ to plan upcoming tasks and obtain desired credentials.
One problem mentioned in the Gallup Publication was the ineffectiveness of performance reviews; they are often uninspiring and infrequent. I also think one sided. An employer has a series of evaluations and takes control of the meeting, uses their own metrics, and plans an employee’s upcoming projects. So, an employer taking ‘co-pilot’ is an important distinction of Skills Based Approach. Users – students or professionals – are put in the ‘driver seat’ of their learning; this is the subject of a recent webinar I gave.
Perhaps the best way to address not having purpose in work is to empower individuals to choose their own projects and even become intrapreneurs. This is something many of the leading software companies (Google and LinkedIn) have adopted. Many of these companies are successful in achieving high ‘employee engagement’ numbers. Another way these companies help employees focus on purposeful work is by removing their unpurposeful work: laundry, shopping, preparing meals, etc.
I believe achieving purpose as a company depends on its culture. A company should be able to provide a clear, concise mission and deliver on it every day. Profit should not be the sole driver of company success.
(I think) another root cause (not mentioned by Gallup) is workers are not in the right career, where they want to be elsewhere doing something else. For many workers, simply changing to another career is not an option. There are too many barriers, such as a stringent requirement tied to a degree, for example. (If you want to be a teacher, there is a good chance you must get a two-year degree and a master’s degree depending on state requirements.)
An answer to this problem is to find ways to help workers pivot into another career in an efficient way. For many careers, if you prove and demonstrate a skill set, you can switch to them (without having to go back to attend a college program). Skills Based Approach is highly effective in this scenario because you deal with an evolving skill set and competencies, so you always assess where you are and want to be and then make a plan to acquire required skills.
An answer to this problem for future generations is to provide better resources to impressionable students in high school and early college. Help students become more self and socially aware to make an optimal decision when they must, such as choosing: a program when they graduate, a degree, and career.
(I feel) for my generation, many of us were not self-aware to make an accurate decision. The reason was lack of tools (technology and applications) and a focus on a ‘social pathway’ – having fun and being connected. But now, there is a plethora of resources for self and social discovery.
Skills Based Approach simplifies something complex – education and career planning. Use any strategy to identify possible careers or interests, take the results (MyerBriggs personality traits, Gallup strengths, Knack talents, etc.) and translate them into skills and an action plan to acquire skill competencies (the primary function of the Planning Stage). Equally important are the objectives while trying to acquire the skills (Building Stage). A student has many options and may pivot instantaneously into another education or career plan. This flexibility with an evolving skill set is a benefit of Skills Based Approach.
One way to tackle the sluggish ‘employee engagement’ number is to put employees in the ‘driver seat’ of their learning. Skills Base Approach is an ideal platform for lifelong learning.