Is school about "skills" or "behaviors"?

 Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Morgan Housel may be a professional investment advisor, but his weekly blog post usually contains at least one keen insight into how learning happens.

In "Skills vs. Behavior," he writes about the difference between skills and behaviors. Given how much focus schools devote to "skill building" (I'm certainly guilty of this emphasis), Housel's distinction is an important one:

"GRT [General Recorded Tape, maker of 8-track tapes] built an organization few entrepreneurs will ever pull off. But it was the kind of success that's specific to one thing in one moment in time. I'd call that a skill.

"Contrast that with Disney, Xerox, or IBM.

"All have made money on different things when the old thing stopped working. Disney has prospered selling 7-minute black-and-white cartoons, theme park tickets, and cable channels. Xerox made money selling copy machines, the computer mouse, and marketing solutions. IBM developed computers, then sold computers, then sold services that let you get rid of computers.

"That's different than a skill. The ability to drop what you're doing, learn something new, and prosper again, is a behavior.

"[...] Skills should be praised. But skill without the right behavior often has a ceiling and an expiration date." [emphasis added]

How much of a typical school experience is organized around developing skills vs. transferring those skills to new situations in order to form behaviors?

And how often are skills assessed in nice, neat packages, such as blue book exams, multiple choice questions, or problem-sets?

In other words, how often does school focus on the skills for college (i.e., more "school")--or, as Housel puts it, "the kind of success that's specific to one thing in one moment in time."

How does it benefit a learner to develop the skills to "do school" well yet lack the behaviors necessary for life?

What if, instead, we were to design opportunities for learners to transfer those skills to unpredictable situations, to problems they've never seen before, as a way of helping them to form behaviors for life?


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Christian Talbot