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Students need our help to become sophisticated and flexible thinkers

Welcome to the modern world characterized by rapid changes and dramatic challenges to our survival. A world that's filled with complexity and ambiguity, in which a global pandemic is just one of the many complex problems that confront—or may soon confront—the human species. 

If you're struggling with the uncertainty of this century, spare a thought for our teenagers.

Analytical Thinking Skills Students Need to … Flex

We can't just arm our students for this modern world full of unpredictable, complicated problems. They also need our help to become sophisticated and flexible thinkers handling whatever challenges come their way. We need to familiarize them with broadly useful thinking processes that can help them work their way through a wide range of complex problems. And we need to develop their capacity to use these processes well by providing multiple opportunities to apply analytical thinking to authentic and challenging tasks.

Nine such complex thinking processes are embodied in The Skills Studio pedagogical model—let's unpack these nine skill processes:

  • Entrepreneurial: ~ steps into the unknown, ~ takes on challenges, ~ thinks and acts decisively
  • Analytical: ~ validates assumptions, ~ symptoms vs. problems, ~ applies Five-Why1 method
  • Creative: ~ explores with curiosity, ~ challenges the status quo, ~ confident to share ideas
  • Self-Manages: ~ ethical and moral code, ~ interested and interesting, ~ recognizes Kairos2 moments
  • Resilient: ~ practices optimism, ~ perseveres under pressure, ~ service over rewards
  • Collaborator: ~ honorable and honest, ~ consciously lifts others, ~ promotes diversity
  • Listener: ~ reflects understanding, ~ asks open questions, ~ participates to learn
  • Writer: ~ learns the craft, understands the audience, ~ engages through stories
  • Persuader: ~ uses rapport & empathy, ~ establishes trust, ~ leverages Agency3.
The Skills Studio pedagogical model by Greg Twemlow

We focus on these nine life skills specifically because they reflect how expert thinkers analyze and address real-world problems. 

Of course, the real-world utility of these nine thinking processes extends far beyond the context of what we've all experienced since early 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. They are integral to contemporary and future problem solving and should be an essential part of modern education—built into the curriculum by design.

Designing Tasks that Fortify the Nine Skills

In recent years, many schools have placed a greater emphasis on problem-based learning and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Yet when researchers look into classrooms—even classrooms with strong commitments to deep learning—they don't see evidence that students are being challenged to apply these kinds of skills to complex challenges. Tasks that require factual recall and lower-level thinking skills tend to be the norm rather than the exception (Mehta & Fine, 2019).

The Skills Studio pedagogical model provides a practical framework for changing this dynamic and for designing rich tasks that develop complex, real-world thinking skills across grade levels and content areas. Even better, Skills Studio-driven tasks do more than build skills; they engage students in thinking deeply about critical content and challenge students to apply their learning in authentic ways.

If the endgame is to develop sophisticated thinkers and learners who understand content deeply and can transfer their knowledge and skills to real-world challenges, we need to focus less on "covering" every bit of content and focus more on using authentic tasks that invite complex thinking and application (although students will, of course, need relevant content knowledge to accomplish such tasks).

Skills Studio-driven tasks do more than build skills; they engage students in thinking deeply about critical content and challenge students to apply their learning in an authentic way.

Guidance for Making the Shift

The beauty of these nine skills is that they're versatile enough to be integrated throughout the curriculum, no matter what subject is being taught. But for many teachers, bringing more complex thinking tasks into the classroom will require additional guidance. Tasks designed around one or more of these nine thinking skills need to:

  • Focus on authentic issues and problems that are genuinely engaging and relevant for learners.
  • Involve important content from one or more of the disciplines (standards).
  • Require deep thinking and transfer of knowledge. For instance, they should be at Webb's Depth of Knowledge levels 3 and 4 (Webb, 1999).
  • Include well-developed "success" criteria that are shared (or co-created) with students.

The ultimate goal should be to design the entire curriculum around authentic, complex thinking tasks like those described here. But as with any new skill, it's important to start slowly and build capacity for success for both teachers and learners. Adding even a few assignments that will engender complex thinking can have a significant impact on the quality of thinking and learning. When you feel more comfortable, try designing a broader, more complex task that could drive the teaching and learning for an entire unit.

Building students' capacity for success is equally important. With the tasks serving as performance targets, you can "plan backward" to identify the knowledge, skills, and conceptual understandings that each will require. Then, develop the lessons and learning activities needed to prepare learners for success on the different types of tasks.

Prepare Young Learners for the Real World

When we engage students in applying complex thinking processes within "real world" scenarios, applying their brainpower to realistic tasks, we make learning more engaging and enduring. Active learning results in deeper learning of content, while building the skills and habits of mind of expert thinkers. Over time, learners become increasingly able to independently apply these processes—a sure sign of real-world readiness.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, we can't know what kinds of challenges people now in their teens or younger will face as adults. 

What we can do is equip them with the skills they'll need to think their way through whatever challenges the future has in store. Adopting The Skills Studio framework a basis for designing student work in schools would be a strong first step toward achieving that goal.

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