“I went to the store the other day and the kid behind the register couldn’t make change when the register malfunctioned. They don’t even teach the basics anymore…”
I hear this anecdote an obscene amount of times because I am a math teacher leading a massive shift in educational priorities. And if anyone should be an unyielding, pragmatic, last-remaining bastion against the tide of transferable skills, it should be the esoteric math teacher. So what am I doing, shirking my duty of making sure that everyone knows how to efficiently make change by promoting more time spent practicing transferable skills? If the kids can’t even count, how can they possibly pay bills, get loans, or do their taxes? They’ll be slaves to technology and never know how to think for themselves!
I am being facetious. But the whole story is built on hyperbole and assumptions. I’m usually told this story by people who genuinely want to understand how transferable skills will help the next generations address the issues of global climate change. They are often playing a form of “devil’s advocate” for the following dilemmas:
More time spent focused on transferable skills means less time spent on “practical knowledge”. Of course. From a quantitative view, there are only so many hours in a school day, and if you add something new, something old either gets thrown out or reduced. In time only though. Teaching content through the lens of transferable skills boosts the qualitative value of “practical knowledge.” For example, over the course of an hour in a math classroom, you can show students a procedure for subtracting and have them practice that procedure. Your evidence of learning will be how often they got the correct solution and maybe a self reflection. OR you can have them practice the component of PERSISTENCE that says, “I use what I learn to continue growing” by asking them to create their own procedure for subtraction after reviewing a previously learned procedure for addition. Your evidence of learning will be a procedure that is student-owned and explicitly connected to prior knowledge. Which leads me to the next assumption:
Mathematics is Arithmetic. And history is dates, and language is structure, and science is facts, etc. This utilitarian view of education is pervasive in our capitalist society. Knowledge must serve an economic purpose meant to increase efficiencies in established institutions. This view limits the truth of what we teach – that mathematics is the art of pattern-making, language is the constantly evolving fabric of communication, history is a complicated web of power and privilege, and the scientific method is our ultimate tool in furthering collective understanding of our world and our selves. This is what I strive to teach, and how beautifully transferable skills connect these practices. Speaking of institutions:
Education is the passing on of norms and traditions from one generation to the next. When new generations no longer uphold the same values and practices as older generations, then there is conflict. Members of the older generation may feel disrespected. Members of the younger generation may feel frustrated. This is a tension that has and always will exist. When we provide students the opportunities to practice and become proficient in transferable skills, we are setting them up to confront their frustrations with an open mind as young people, and to grapple with the changing nature of humans as older people. Education is about managing and preserving an ever-flowing river of change, not building dams and dikes to control it.
So the next time you’re at the store and you hand over $11 to the cashier for a bill of $5.45, take a moment to appreciate the incredible experience you’re about to have. You have knowledge that while it may be “easier” to hand over a $10 bill, you choose $11, because the difference is a return of four $1 bills or a single $5 bill. You know all about your day, your history and your perceptions, but chances are you know nothing of the cashier. Consider how communication, critical thinking, creativity, cultural awareness, wellbeing, and persistence will inform your interaction and help you connect better with this individual. Approach the situation with transferable skills in mind, and you’ll be the one making change!