October 25, 2018

Building a Course: The Skills Framework

The Skills-Forward Approach

We refer to the Quest Forward Learning curriculum as “skills-forward,” in that student learning begins with a discussion of the skills we expect them to acquire. Skills are the building blocks of a Quest Forward Learning education, and by learning them students will develop traits such as leadership, critical thinking, and taking initiative. To ensure that our students reach these outcomes, any course development starts by introducing a “skills framework.” The skills framework breaks down how students will develop the skills of careful and creative thinkers while engaging with course material. Skills can be general, such as “Tell a good story,” or they can be specific, rooted in a particular technique within a subject, such as “Use techniques of numerical analysis to draw conclusions from a model.”

What is a Skills Framework?

A “skills framework” is a group of higher-order skills, the development of which helps explain why a particular subject is something worth studying. In the case of Reading, Writing, and Thinking, which encompasses both English and Social Sciences in the Quest Forward Learning curriculum, the skills framework at the highest level is organized as follows:

  • Take In
  • Discover
  • Argue
  • Produce

These four categories are not actual skills, but define logical sets of skills that students will develop in Reading, Writing, and Thinking. Within each of the groups, there are 15 further designated skills, which provide the backbone for the course:

  • Take In:  Engage, Establish Meaning, Identify Context
  • Discover: Develop A Question, Analyze, Research, Experiment, Innovate
  • Argue: Assess, Take a Position, Give Reasons
  • Produce: Organize, Make, Review, Share

Skills Into Sub-Skills

While it is tempting to talk about skills in overarching terms, it is much more useful to break skills down into their essential components, which we call “sub-skills.” Sub-skills are more narrowly conceived skills associated with specific behaviors. When a student learns a skill, they increasingly demonstrate that behavior. The behavior, therefore, becomes the barometer of progress in the acquisition of the skill. This connection between skills and behaviors is essential; only when a student demonstrates a particular skill successfully can they exhibit the corresponding behaviors expected of, and leading to, mastery. This is not something a student does all at once, but throughout their four years of high school. As an example, in the Reading, Writing, and Thinking course, the skill called “Assess,” which is part of the larger category of “Argue,” contains the three following sub-skills:

  1. Evaluate Reasoning – Productively evaluate the reasoning of (others’) arguments for validity, including faulty forms of inference, neglected alternatives, and fallacies.
  2. Evaluate Premises and Judgements – Evaluate the arguments of others for soundness, including examination of the premises and value judgments that play a role in those arguments.
  3. Evaluate Evidence – Assess the quality and adequacy of evidence offered in support of an argument.

When a student learns how to “Assess,” they have then also learned how to “Evaluate Reasoning,” how to “Evaluate Premises and Judgements,” and how to “Evaluate Evidence.”  

Skills and Sub-skills Across the Phases

As a student progresses through the curriculum over four years, the expectations increase. This is a natural progression of skill acquisition and is consistent with student development and maturity. In the table below, for example, the sub-skill “Express Clearly” introduces more complex skills each year. Students are expected to move from lower levels of demonstration, such accuracy in spelling, grammar, and conventional use of language, to beginning to pay attention to how their sentences and paragraphs cohere and developing their own style of expression.  

Development of “Express Clearly”

Foundation Phase Develop and employ techniques for achieving clarity in a work, including accurate spelling and correct grammar usage.
Exploration Phase – Year 1 Produce works with minimal grammar or spelling errors; pay equal attention to clarity at the level of sentence structure, paragraph structure, and overall project.
Exploration Phase – Year 2 Produce works that show confidence in grammar and syntax, such as varied sentence structure or consistent tone; use signposts to direct reader’s attention.
Transition Phase Produce works that demonstrate a unique style (in tone, structure, or content) with the reader in mind.

While demonstrating how individual performance expectations differ at each grade level, the table above shows the depth of thought underlying the Quest Forward Learning curriculum. Once skills are identified and categorized, they are dissected into specific sub-skills. At that point the behaviors associated with the skill are identified and then articulated across the four phases to ensure developmental suitability. This skills-forward approach to the creation of a curriculum considers first what students will need to know or understand, and then builds towards that goal.

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