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Five skills students must develop for success

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

The skills your students should have

The American school system is in the process of a massive transformation. Students today will be expected to demonstrate skills like self-motivation, communication, teamwork, leadership, and perseverance in order to succeed in and beyond the workplace.

The traditional "teacher talks, student listens" model of learning has been replaced by one in which students are encouraged to work together to solve problems and develop new ideas.

We often refer these skills to as 21st century skills or soft skills because they are not typically associated with specific academic subjects (e.g., science). They are also sometimes referred to as academic soft skills—skills that contribute to success in all areas of school.

There are many skills that students need to develop before graduation that will help them become successful adults. These include finishing what they start and taking ownership of their responsibilities.

Here are a few other skills teachers should encourage the development of in their students as they prepare for the working world.

1. Problem-solving

The more we try to control our students' lives, the less we teach them useful skills. We shouldn't be telling them what to think or feel, and we shouldn't be trying to protect them from life's difficulties. Instead, we should teach them how to cope on their own.

One of the most important skills is problem-solving. That you can follow directions doesn't mean you know how to solve a new problem. Knowing how to solve a new problem typically requires some background knowledge or some insight into what's going on or some creativity — in other words, multiple skills — and knowing which one is appropriate for any given situation takes experience and judgment.

The reason for this is that there is no formula for solving problems; each one requires its own approach. When we force the same solution on every problem (or even worse, when we assign a solution), we miss out on opportunities to develop individual strengths.

2. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is not so much a skill as it is an approach to thinking about problems. It's the habit of questioning your own and other people's ideas, and evaluating evidence:

What reasons do people give for what they say, and how credible are those reasons?

Does this evidence really support that conclusion?

The purpose of teaching students to think critically is not to make them into skeptics, but to help them become good problem solvers and good citizens. Critical thinking is a tool. When you learn to use tools, you get better at doing whatever it is you want to do.

To learn critical thinking, you have to practice it. Work on the problems below in small groups or individually. Then try making up problems of your own, and ask others to solve them using critical thinking.

3. Time management

Good time management is the difference between being able to fit everything in and having to choose what not to do.

By "time management" I don't mean the popular techniques, like making checklists or using color-coded calendars. Those can be helpful, but they are secondary. I mean thinking about time management as a core technical skill for your students. And that means thinking about three things: what you do with your time, how you feel about it, and whether you are good at it.

Students are frequently told to organize their time, but they are rarely given specific guidance on how to do so. The result is usually a series of unproductive "habits"--e.g., being late for class because the student prefers putting on make-up or combing hair rather than touch up her notes or read the chapter; or not leaving enough time to finish an assignment and having to work late and miss dinner and fall asleep in class...Thus, instead of helping students learn how to manage their time, we end up with students who manage their time poorly.

Time management is a skill that everyone needs in their lives, but it's something you have to learn. Teaching time management skills can be a challenge, but it's important to help your students learn how to manage their time in a way that works for them.

But what can you do besides give a lecture on managing time? How can you teach time management skills to your students?

You can make it fun by getting them involved in activities like these:

Have students create an online profile. It doesn't matter what kind of profile they make; all that matters is that they spend time thinking about their priorities and how they want to use their time.

Have students set goals. Again, there are many types of goals you can set for students, but the key here is that they need to take into consideration how they plan to use their time.

Have students create a daily schedule. This might be the most difficult part of the activity; however, if students are struggling with this step, start by giving them some suggestions so they don't feel overwhelmed. Once they get started, they may find this easier than expected.

We must teach our students specific skills that would help them manage their time.


First, we must understand that the most important skill is self-management: discipline, commitment, and determination. Without these, it doesn't matter how good a planner you are; you will not be able to follow through on your plans.

4. Communication skills

Some skills, such as memorizing a bunch of facts and being able to solve a few kinds of problems on a test, are useful in some school situations but not in others. Other skills, such as being able to communicate with clarity and precision, are useful in almost any situation.

Asking your students to develop these kinds of higher-order skills is asking them to step up from the world of school to the world of work. You can do this by giving them opportunities to write or speak about something they have been studying.

Students need to learn how to talk to each other, and if they are going to succeed in life, they need to be able to talk persuasively about what they know.

All too often, teachers themselves are tongue-tied. As a high school teacher, I have learned that the best way to get students to speak is not by telling them what you want them to say but by asking open-ended questions that prompt surprising answers.

The best way for me as a teacher to learn something new about my field is to teach it. I have become more expert at whatever it is by thinking out loud rather than lecturing.

Students must be encouraged early on to share personal stories, start conversations with strangers, speak up in meetings, ask good questions of people smarter than themselves, and tolerate being told that their ideas don't make sense.

5. Creativity

Creativity is hard to define. But it encompasses a range of skills like generating ideas, imagining possibilities, and combining concepts in new ways. It also includes the ability to be flexible, to take in new information without losing sight of old goals or original plans.

These kinds of creativity are increasingly important in modern life. The world today is much more complex than it was even a generation ago; technology has made it easier for us to do things that were once impossible. But this also means there are more options, more ways to get things done—and more ways for us to get them wrong.

The future is right around the corner

Make sure your students are prepared with the skills they need to be successful. Educators play a crucial role in helping young adults build valuable life skills. They know when to push and when to pull back, keeping students on the path to success.

There is a lot that goes into getting an education, but not all of it has to be school related. Instead of just focusing on the academic side of things, you can help your students to develop skills that will help them succeed over the course of their entire life.


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