Part One: Creating the Conditions, Effective Communication, and Aptitude Awareness
Employability skills are a set of skills outside of technical or academic competencies that are considered imperative to being a successful employee and team member. In an effort to ensure these skills are integrated into academic settings, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) has arranged these competencies into four categories: mindsets, work ethic, learning strategies, and social emotional learning. When woven through content areas and policies and procedures, these skills can be developed and practiced in a way that allows them to become habits, even automatic behaviors. This embodiment of skills gives our students an advantage in the workforce compared to others who may be learning these skills later in life.
Throughout the year I will address each category in its own blog post. The first in the series was mindsets, the second will be learning strategies and this one is so important it has two parts! The Indiana Department of Education defines learning strategies as, “processes and tactics students employ to aid in the cognitive work of thinking, remembering, or learning.” Learning strategies are then broken down into the following categories: effective communication, aptitude awareness, decision-making, initiative, attention to detail, and problem solving. Together, we will explore strategies to create conditions that support growth and simple but impactful implementation ideas for your classroom! While I have assigned strategies to specific categories, the truth is many, if not all, of these suggestions address several components of developing learning strategies.
Creating the Conditions
Learning strategies can not be developed in a space that doesn’t feel psychologically safe. Simply put, students have to feel a sense of community and know they can make mistakes and ask questions without punishment or humiliation. Psychological safety in the classroom is foundational to true learning and one of the very first things we must address before moving into employability, academic, or technical skill building!
In a psychologically safe environment we can encourage curiosity and questioning in a way that will help us meet our goal of developing independent learners! It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I had a lightbulb moment that I could and perhaps should be questioning content that was introduced and taught in school! I was about 3 years old when I began questioning things at home, of course (sorry mom and dad!), but I would have never questioned a teacher. I am sure that was because I didn’t have a clear understanding of the difference between curiosity and disrespect. Now that I am a mother, I see my daughters respectfully push back on ideas or ask (a never ending amount of) follow up questions and I adore that level of curiosity and fact checking. I believe that their teachers are to thank for that. They are encouraged to ask questions, find answers, and sometimes that means they epically fail but inevitably learn.
One lesson in particular that accomplished this was an assignment from my then third grader’s teacher in which the class was to research and answer questions about the tree dwelling octopus. They were given the websites to review and a list of questions to answer about the animals habitat, food source, size, etc. As they completed working independently or in small groups, the teacher asked for the answers to her questions and wrote them on the board. The class excitedly shared all they had learned about this very interesting animal! At the end of the lesson she asked if they had any other thoughts or questions. Did they feel like anything was missed? Quite pleased with their efforts none of them had anything to add. Then the teacher said, “you actually did miss one detail” and she wrote, “It’s Fake!” on the board. My daughter’s mind was still blown when she returned home that evening. Such a great learning experience about questioning what is right in front of us and checking to make sure our resources are credible.
Here are some other ideas for encouraging curiosity and for creating safety in the classroom.
Strategies for creating safety and encouraging curiosity
Create a sense of shared identity and a sense of belonging for all students.
Act as a warm demander. A teacher who is a warm demander operates in a way that lets her students know they are deeply cared for and they are expected to work to their potential. This beautiful blend of firm and comforting creates structure and safety inviting students to strive to achieve knowing they’ll be supported if/when they fall.
Notice and praise. Acknowledge and praise the effort you see in the classroom. By praising the process as well as the outcome, students will understand that their efforts are not in vain if the outcome isn’t what they hoped.
Accepting more than one answer. One of the best things I’m learning working with the fantastic team at INcompassing Education is that, even in math, there can be more than one answer! A lot of this goes back to the process or how a student got to an answer, but I have witnessed some beautiful classroom discussions when a student was able to say, “I got there a different way.” This builds confidence, skills, and communication in the classroom
This subcategory of learning strategies is one I could spend hours dissecting! In a world where forms of communication change quickly between in-person and virtual, this can be a tricky topic. We have less time to practice the pause and more space to remain anonymous in our criticism. Integrating communication skill building into our classrooms is necessary as it is through conversation, active listening, collaboration, and sometimes even spirited discussion that we learn to view the world from a perspective outside of ours. Effective communication is a key element of growth and development far beyond the classroom.
Here are some ideas for building effective communication.
Help students develop empathy. You can learn more about how to do that here. Empathy is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It is an important part of effective communication between students and between students and teachers. Without empathy, you risk the psychological safety of your students.
Collaboration. You’ll find a few more collaborative activities in the decision making section of part 2 but it is critical to effective communication as well! A great way to practice collaboration while developing digital literacy skills is to do the Search-Pair-Share activity!
Search-Pair-Share -pose a question to the class and ask them to search for the answer independently. As they do so, they will need to sift through sources to determine what is credible information, learn how to separate paid advertisements from unbiased reports, and document their findings. After they have been given time to search on their own, allow them to pair up and share with their partner what they’ve learned. This gives them a great opportunity to communicate their findings while listening to their partners results. They then must work together to blend that information for the sharing portion of the activity in which they summarize what they have learned. I love everything about this strategy as it wraps so many learning strategies together and can be applied to specific content learning while practicing digital literacy!
Self-advocacy. How many times have we watched students struggle to ask for help? Too many! This skill begins with helping students know themselves. Utilize the aptitude awareness ideas below to get started. As they familiarize themselves with their strengths, they’ll uncover some gaps. Once they’ve identified where they need help they’ll need to learn how to get it! This can be as simple as using post-it notes to track questions or approaching a friend or teacher and explaining that they’re struggling. Depending on the age of the child, self-advocacy generally will require some prompting on the part of the adult. We can help facilitate action by guiding them to ask the right questions without rescuing them right away!
Greetings, listen and response, and conversations – oh my! One of my favorite ways to model, teach, and practice effective communication and conversation is through partner work. When I taught monthly 15 minute SEL lessons in the classrooms, I would try to fit a lot of skill work into a short amount of time. I mimicked what one of my mentors taught me and would do many lessons in partners to integrate the ever important practice of collaboration and conversation. Here is the method I used: I had cards I used for random pairing. Before releasing students to find their partners (cards upside down on their desk at this time), we’d review elements of a good greeting: say hello, use their name, add something like I’m excited to work with you today and be authentic when you do so. Then I would say, “I gave out 23 cards today – is that number even or odd?” After telling me it was odd, I’d ask what that meant for partner work and they’d tell me someone won’t have a partner. I’d prompt with, “we don’t leave out, we invite in, so what does that look like?” Inevitably, the person without a partner would be invited into multiple groups. After the lesson, I’d ask the students to go back to their desks AFTER completing a closing with their partner – “thanks for working with me” or “see you later” and they would return to their desks. Incredibly simple and yet a great way to teach and reinforce elements of conversation. As students advance in their understanding of communication and one another, the lessons would extend to: active listening, productive debate, or exchanging of new ideas, but the greeting, collaboration, and closing remained an important part of our work at all ages.
Learning to identify strengths and understanding how to use them is an important part of building student self-esteem and fostering a lifelong love of learning. This practice also helps educators develop a better understanding of how their students succeed academically, socially, and vocationally.
I recently had the opportunity to work with a school corporation and was thrilled to see evidence of aptitude awareness across grade levels. The elementary school walls were covered with self-portraits with perceived strengths written across the tops of each one, the middle school math teacher was expertly guiding students to use their strengths to help one another through a test study guide, and in a room reserved for in-school suspension at the high school, I witnessed a behavioral interventionist working one on one with a student to complete his CliftonStrengths assessment to uncover his unique talent set. I sat down with this particular interventionist to discuss his plan to utilize the results of this assessment to help the student apply for a part time job he was interested in pursuing. What a productive use of what, historically, might have been unproductive punitive time.
Here are some other activities/strategies to promote aptitude awareness in your classrooms.
Start by simply brainstorming, listing, and talking about students’ interests. Notice what sparks a light in them as they talk! Invite them to dig deeper in those areas through a student interest led assignment.
Have students create a self-portrait and surround the image with their strengths – either self-identified or allow them to ask a friend or family member if it is a struggle to identify strengths.
Take time to share with students what you perceive their strengths to be
Consider utilizing formal strengths assessments. Clifton Strengths is an assessment that is designed to identify individual strengths, or talents, and then gives students resources to understand how to maximize their abilities using their natural strengths. It is that second piece that makes it so beneficial to users! The information does not stop at a list of strengths. There is an opportunity to learn how each person’s unique combination of talents can be developed. This is beneficial to students and teachers as it deepens the understanding of the individual. There is a cost for this assessment; however, many school districts have made the investment and utilize this tool to support their middle school, high school, and college students. In return they are reporting higher student engagement, more opportunities for individualized learning, greater academic success, and improved school culture.
The ASVAB Career Exploration Program is most commonly known as a military assessment tool; however, any student from 10th grade on is able to take it. Doing so will uncover strengths and interests, identify potential occupations, and guide pathways to a variety of careers. It is also worth noting that this assessment is FREE!
I love to learn. LOVE it! I am not sure I can pinpoint when or where that love began but it is something that grows stronger as I get older. I may have drifted away from that love temporarily when I was a teenager and young adult, but in my defense – I had nothing left to learn because I already knew everything, just ask my mom! I am kidding of course and cringing thinking about how much fun my mom will have watching me interact with my children when they believe they know it all – ha! But I digress. As a school social worker and as a parent, it is my sincere hope that my interactions with the kids in my life will spark or fuel their desire to know more, to ask questions, to remain open to new ideas, and to never stop engaging in the learning process. Like the other employability skills outlined by the Indiana Department of Education, learning strategies are not innate. These skills must be modeled, taught, and reinforced across environments for them to become ingrained. Some of these skills take longer than others to develop, but once we have them, we can rely on them to kick in as an almost automatic response when we need them, thus giving us the gift of lifelong, independent learning! Happy learning, friends!