Why Modern Learners Need a New Set of Skills

Opinion |

Why Modern Learners Need a New Set of Skills

By Gayle Allen     Aug 3, 2014

Why Modern Learners Need a New Set of Skills

Currently, there seems to be a gap between what our schools and universities teach and the lifelong learning skills students must learn to master on their own. And yet, the need for students to master lifelong skills has never been greater. Corporate leaders confirm their importance for promotion and advancement, while economists contend these skills hold the key to countering projected job losses due to automation. With all the buzz around the Common Core, MOOCs, and blended learning, it’s time to prioritize skills that prepare students to learn for life.

With schools like Summit Public Schools and Lindsay Unified making efforts to experiment with new approaches to learning, there’s an opportunity to focus on a new set of skills. I believe these skills can be broken into three categories: Reflection, Research, and Resolving. Grounded in educator Malcolm Knowles’ definition of learning, these 3Rs take students beyond the centuries-old, subject-specific 3Rs of reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic. Armed with them, learners can thrive in a world where learning never ends.

The New 3Rs

Today’s graduates must navigate a changing job market and a glut of learning options. As educators, we have the opportunity to help them learn how to adapt and respond to this change. And I believe these 3Rs will help our students do just that.

Reflecting: In most schools, learners rarely consider the courses they need or want to take, and they often don’t understand how courses are sequenced. Instead, they passively work their way through a prescribed curriculum. As a result, they graduate without any idea of how to think about assembling a course of study from a wealth of options. They may also lack the experience of setting and accomplishing learning goals. In a world where lifelong learning will need to be a regular part of their lives, these skills are vital.

In the real world, consider how the Reflection might work in the life of a first-year creative designer on a team of people working for a company. Over the course of the year, she realizes her supervisor is assigning her more simplistic projects than her peers. When she asks why, she learns she lacks the programming skills needed to take on more challenging assignments. This gets her thinking about her future goals and the ongoing learning she may need to do to advance (or even maintain) her position. She will need to be able to map these goals out if she wants to begin moving forward and moving up in her company.

Researching: In many schools, learners rarely see research skills as integral to their studies. Often, research is associated with grade-level specific papers or one-time projects. For lifelong learners, conducting effective research is a vital skill. They need to be facile in combing through online sites and databases and in accessing and contributing to social networks. Their ability to research can mean the difference between tracking down affordable and up-to-date resources or grinding to a halt when they cannot find what they need.

Consider once more our first-year designer. Through her research, she discovers a wealth of programming courses, from free to low cost, and from one-day to multi-week. The number of options is dizzying, and she soon realizes she lacks the expertise to make a decision. Knowing this, she reaches out to her personal network and to experts online. She works through a variety of conflicting opinions to make a decision. Rather than take a longer course that requires a greater commitment of time and money, she opts for a shorter, in-person course that will introduce her to several programming languages.

Resolving: Traditional school environments often create passive learners. When the curriculum is set, the schedule reinforced with bells and buzzers, and the environment factory-like, learners have few opportunities to make decisions for themselves. Following graduation, learners must learn, often for the first time, how to structure their time, how to make decisions, and how to take action. Faced with this challenge, they can become overwhelmed and paralyzed by uncertainty. If they have not had the opportunity to make decisions, make mistakes within reason, and fail, all within a safe and supportive K-12 environment, they can lack the confidence to do this in life. Pushing past these fears is crucial. They cannot learn if they do not move from reflection and research to action.

For a real-world example, consider once again our first-year designer. She attends a one-day course and steeps herself in several programming languages related to her work. By the end of the day, she knows that Java is the language for her. Because she attended an in-person workshop, she was able to spend breaks and lunchtime getting to know the people in her class. She learned how several had made the shift from design work to full-time programming. Inspired by what she has learned, she decides to research introductory Java courses. She also plans to connect with other full-time Java programmers, so that she can learn more about the field. The entire experience takes her back to the start of the process for additional reflection and goal setting.

Rethinking Current Approaches

There are a number of ways we can build the 3Rs into what we do each day in schools. Here are some suggestions:


  • Teachers: Build reflection into the learning process, no matter the subject or activity. As part of the reflection process, require students to set learning goals and to document them in shared spaces, such as Google docs or blogs. Provide opportunities for them to share their goals publicly and to seek support in achieving them.
  • School Leaders: Encourage teacher reflections, as well. Work with teachers to create helpful prompts and to decide on the social networking sites they’d most like to use (e.g., Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, etc.). Build times for reflection into department and faculty meetings. Ask teachers to align reflections with personal and professional learning goals.


  • Teachers: Create opportunities for students to conduct research beyond subject-or grade-specific papers or reports. This could include asking them to research specific aspects of an upcoming field trip, activity, or learning resource. Options could include having them seek out available apps, educational games, online and in-person courses, or experts associated with a particular concept, skill, or topic. Require that they research and read reviews and then rank their top three to five options. They should be prepared to make a case for their top choices.
  • School Leaders: Ask teachers to research professional learning experiences to support their teaching, and include them in decisions on what the school or district will provide. Stay open to all the ways teachers are learning online through others’ blogs, MOOCs, and Twitter chats. Work with teachers to research the abundance of learning options for them and for their students - encourage a mindset of abundance versus scarcity.


  • Teachers: After students have researched and made a case for specific learning options, be they educational games, online experts, activities, or apps, let them choose which to pursue. For example, if it’s an educational game, let them make an informed choice and then begin using the game. Require them to critique their learning experience in relation to learning goals. Encourage mistakes and provide opportunities for students to reflect on the results of their decisions, good and bad. This gives students an opportunity to take risks in a safe environment and, with your guidance, to adjust, as needed.
  • School Leaders: Ensure teachers act on their professional learning choices. Learn with them as they discover options that are better than others. Help them create an online resource list they can share with others in their school, district, or beyond.

Learners will continue draw on the 3Rs again and again, as they pursue their goals. Their ability to reflect, research, and resolve may determine how well they survive and thrive in work and life. As educators, we have an opportunity to help our K-12 students develop these skills. If we do it right, we can help them build and develop these skills for life.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up