Life Skills

A toolkit for success

Life Skills featured image

What Are Life Skills?

The World Health Organization defines life skills as “abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life." (WHO, 1994).

That’s pretty general, but essentially it's any skill that will help students succeed not just academically, but in life!

Unlike knowledge of facts, which comprises so much of conventional education, life skills can be applied to an infinite number of situations.

Life skills are dependent on executive functioning skills, which are like the building blocks of life skills. According to The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive function and self-regulation skills include planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. The brain needs these skills to filter out distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. No one is born with these skills, but everyone can learn them through practice.

At gt.school, students learn five life skills in the Life Skills Challenge:

  1. Taking Ownership
  2. Learning to Learn
  3. Mastery Mindset
  4. Ambitious Goals
  5. Daily Practice

 

How Does Taking Ownership Drive Learning?

To achieve great academic success and reach other goals, students need to be internally motivated. By taking personal responsibility for their learning and direction, students can find the drive to set learning goals and accomplish great things. This is what we mean by taking ownership.

Conley and French (2013) studied student ownership of learning in the context of high school students’ readiness for college. They explain that student ownership of learning is a positive flywheel (Figure 17) involving student motivation and engagement, leading to goal setting and self-confidence in the learning process, followed by self-monitoring, adjustment, and persistence to reach goals. Once students have succeeded at something meaningful to them, they are more motivated and engaged to set new goals and begin the cycle again. This ownership of learning model predicts standardized achievement test scores, high school grades, college, and graduate school GPA and success later in life” (Credé & Kuncel, 2008; Duckworth et al., 2007; Duckworth & Quinn, 2009; Dweck et al., 2011; Richardson et al., 2012; Robbins et al., 2004; Rutter, 2006; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001).

Figure 17

Adapted from "Student Ownership of Learning as a Key Component of College Readiness" by D. Conley & E. French. (2013). American Behavioral Scientist. 58. 1018-1034.

 

Research has also shown that intrinsic motivation is more strongly correlated with college GPA than external motivators, such as parental pressure (Richardson et al., 2012).

Taking ownership of learning is a pretty powerful concept!

 

What is Learning to Learn?

The second life skill, “learning to learn”, is linked to taking ownership of learning. Learning to learn means that students are not only internally motivated, but believe that they are responsible for their own learning and growth and have the tools to achieve their goals.

Learning to learn implies that students become “intentional learners” (Savin-Baden and Major 2004). Basically, this means that students are aware of the reasons they are studying, how they can learn, and how they will use their education to benefit their lives.

 

Why is learning to learn important?

In our rapidly changing world, it is largely unknown what knowledge we will need in 5-10 years to be successful in our careers and navigate life in general. For example, in 10 years the most popular programming language may be one that has not even been invented yet.

In the past, education was often viewed as a transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. It is clear now, however, that education should view the individual holistically, valuing the attitudes of the individual, the ability to build on prior learning, and the capacity to develop strategies to learn something new (Hoskins and Deakin Crick, 2008).

If students learn how to learn, instead of just learning a static body of knowledge, they can transform learning into a dynamic process and equip themselves to be learners for life. This will ensure that they are prepared for changing knowledge requirements in the future.

 

The Growth Mindset: How can we learn to learn?

Learning to learn is both a cognitive process and a non-cognitive one that depends on motivational factors- feelings and attitudes (Hoskins & Fredriksson, 2008). Learning to learn involves:

  1. Learning how to access the knowledge or practice the skill that you want to learn
  2. Understanding and controlling your own thinking and learning process. This is called metacognitive competence
  3. Developing good attitudes toward learning and what you learn

Accessing the knowledge

At gt school, kids take charge of their learning (taking ownership) to both seek out the resources they need and use those tools and resources to overcome learning hurdles when they are “stuck”. The resources they learn to use can range from scientific research depositories, to newspapers, to in-person and online courses and learning apps.

Understanding and controlling the learning process

Learning to learn involves self-initiated, self-regulated, and intentional learning. According to Eurydice (2002), metacognitive competence, the ability to understand one’s own thinking and learning, plays an important role in the learning process. Through metacognitive skills, people become aware of how and why they acquire and process different types of knowledge. They are then able to choose the best method and environment to meet their learning needs.

So can metacognitive skills be taught?

For sure! Although as individuals grow older their metacognitive levels generally rise (Yildiz, 2018), there are also numerous ways to teach and improve metacognitive competence skills.

In one research study, Adibnia and Putt (1998) discovered that the instruction of metacognitive steps improved Grade 6 students’ mathematical problem-solving performance. The students were divided into three ability levels and tested both before and after the intervention was given to the experimental class.

Giving “reflection assignments” is one way to teach metacognitive skills. As an example of this, Perry et al (2002) showed that when teachers asked elementary school students two questions, “what did you learn about yourself today regarding the subject area?” and “what did you learn that you can consistently replicate well?” their metacognitive awareness increased.

Developing good attitudes toward learning

Research shows that students’ beliefs in their ability to learn can predict their level of academic performance above and beyond their measured level of ability and their prior performance (Dweck, Walton, and Cohen, 2014).

Gt.school kids are encouraged to see learning as a lifelong process and develop a positive set of attitudes, or mindset, towards learning.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, discovered that our mindset can have powerful implications for our ability to learn and improve. Three decades of psychological research by Dweck and her colleagues have shown how two students with equal academic abilities can respond in remarkably different ways when faced with frustration. One student might relish the opportunity to learn and the other become demoralized and give up. Such responses, in turn, affect students’ ability to learn over the long term (Dweck, Walton, and Cohen, 2014).

The difference between the two students comes down to mindset (Figure 18).

Students who view intelligence and ability as a fixed quantity that they either possess or do not possess have a fixed mindset. These students tend to worry about their abilities and about proving them. They are quickly discouraged and feel humiliation and failure when faced with setbacks.

In contrast, students who see intelligence as something that can be increased with learning and effort have a growth mindset. These students see setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. A growth mindset is closely connected to the next life skill, namely a mastery mindset.

Figure 18

“Understanding the Growth Mindset” by Jonathan Lu, Published May 18, 2017, retrieved 23 March, 2022. https://sites.dartmouth.edu/learning/2017/05/18/understanding-the-growth-mindset/

 

Why is a Mastery Mindset so Powerful?

A mastery mindset embraces both the concepts of mastery learning and a growth mindset.

Mastery learning is the idea that students should master concepts before they move on to learn other or more difficult concepts. Implicit in the idea of mastery learning is the assumption that most students can master the concepts, if they are given enough time and instruction, and if they exert enough effort to learn.

A mastery mindset believes that mastery learning is possible because intelligence is malleable and performance can be improved.

Cognitive research has confirmed that intelligence is not fixed and can grow (Ramsden et al., 2011). Even more fascinating, psychological research has revealed that our beliefs about our own intelligence can determine whether or not we can experience that growth.

In other words, whether we believe our intelligence can grow or not determines whether it actually can!

In six experimental studies with ethnically and economically diverse 5th grade students, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck  (1998) demonstrated that the way in which students are praised can teach them to have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset, which in turn determines their performance and whether or not they enjoy difficult tasks.

Praising students for their ability (i.e. “good job, you’re so clever!”) teaches them to have a fixed mindset. On the other hand, praising their effort or strategy (i.e. “well done, you worked hard to finish those problems!”) teaches them to have a growth mindset.

Figure 19 shows that after students had experienced failure during the study, those praised for their effort had significantly higher test scores and significantly more task enjoyment than students who were praised for their intelligence.

Figure 19: Praising Students’ Effort Increases Their Enjoyment of Difficult Tasks and Their Performance

Adapted from "Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance" by C.M. Mueller & C. Dweck, 1998, Journal of personality and social psychology, 75 (1), 33-52.

 

A mastery mindset enables students to believe that they can develop their cognitive capabilities and improve their performance (Conley and French, 2013). Students with a mastery-oriented mindset set goals to master concepts or skills, and believe that they can achieve those goals through effort. They enjoy challenges and are willing to engage in difficult tasks.

In short, a mastery mindset will empower gt.school students to achieve their ambitious goals!

 

Why Do We Teach Ambitious Goal Setting?

Ambitious goals are taught as a life skill at gt.school, and they are also a motivational tool.

Research has shown that goal-setting enables achievement, and ambitious goals actually work better than easy goals.

 

What Does Daily Practice Entail?

This is the most practical of the life skills that we teach at gt.school. For this life skill, we teach kids to think about the quantity, quality, and consistency of their studying or work efforts.

Quantity of Practice

It might seem obvious, but achieving most things, especially ambitious goals, requires a certain amount of “getting your hands dirty”. If you want to run a marathon, you need to spend many hours running to build up your endurance to marathon length. If you want to memorize a song to play on the piano, you likely need to repeatedly play the song.

Research has found that there is a direct link between the number of hours dedicated to learning a skill and the performance of that skill. One famous study (which spawned the popular “10,000-hour rule”) conducted by Karl Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Roemer (1993), studied violinists at a Berlin music academy.

The study found that individual differences in violinist performance were closely related to accumulated amounts of deliberate practice. Figure 20 shows that at 18 years of age, the number of hours the violinists had accumulated in practice significantly explained their relative skill level, with the best academy performers having accumulated 7,410 hours on average, while the students studying to be teachers had only accumulated 3,420 hours on average.

Figure 20

Adapted from "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" by Karl Ericsson, Ralf Krampe & Clemens Tesch-Roemer, 1993, Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

 

A certain quantity of practice will definitely be required in any endeavor. However, as we will see, the quality of the practice is even more important.

Quality of Practice

Unfortunately, Ericsson’s study results are often misinterpreted to mean that anyone can become an expert at anything if they practice as long as the experts have practiced. In fact, the popular “10,00 hours” meme (which says that a person needs 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything, and anyone can if they do), spread as a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, also makes this assumption. The rule neglects to consider that the 10,000 hours in Ericsson’s study is what expert violinists accumulated on average by the age of 20. Some accumulated much less than that, and some much more.

So the important takeaway is not the exact number of hours to achieve expertise, but the fact that more hours led to better performance.

Furthermore, the practice in this study was deliberate practice by those who had chosen to study the violin at a music academy.

Why is that important?

Deliberate practice is distinct from general practice. Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, with an explicit goal of optimizing improvement. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Roemer, 1993).

For instance, writing an email to a friend involves practice with typing, however, there is no deliberate aim to improve the speed or accuracy of the typing. For deliberate practice to occur, speed and accuracy would need to be monitored, and typing exercises should be undertaken.

Figure 21 illustrates the differences between ordinary practice activities (what researchers refer to as “naive” practice) and deliberate practice.

Figure 21

“What is Deliberate Practice?” by Birat Rai, Medium, published October 16, 2017. Retrieved 23 March, 2022. https://biratkirat.medium.com/step-22-do-lots-of-deliberate-practice-jon-jagger-663d93d27553

 

Ericsson’s study is less a demonstration of the power of practice as it is of high quality, deliberate practice.

In another fascinating example of the differences between naive practice and deliberate, or purposeful, practice, Moxley, Ericsson, and Tuffiash (2019) examined gender performance differences between expert Scrabble players. In their 2004 study they found that when they controlled for experience, starting age, and the accumulated amount of Scrabble practice, there were still significant differences in the performance of male vs female competitors, with the females performing worse, even though they outnumbered the males.

In fact, the difference in average Scrabble rating between the males and females was among the largest gender differences studied in cognitive psychology!

To find out why this was the case, the researchers then conducted a further study in 2008. They asked the participants to distinguish between naive practice activities, such as playing Scrabble games, and purposeful practice activities, such as anagram practice.

When controlling for the type of practice activities, the relationship between gender and skill completely disappeared!

The data showed that female Scrabble players engaged in relatively more naive practice activities, while males engaged in relatively more purposeful practice activities, basically because the males found these types of activities to be more enjoyable than the females did. This meant that for the same amount of practice time, the male Scrabble players were building more skill relative to the females. Another example of the power of deliberate practice!

Consistency of Practice

Consistency of practice is the deliberate, daily dedication to activities that lead to accomplishing your goals. Consistency of effort and interest has been shown to improve the likelihood of achieving high goals.

In a famous paper by Angela Duckworth et al. (2007), researchers found that across six studies, individuals with more “grit” were more likely to achieve difficult goals. Grit basically entails having both a consistent interest in your long-term goals and the stamina to work towards them. In their studies, individuals who scored higher in grit attained higher levels of education, achieved higher GPA scores, and (in the case of spelling bee contestants) outranked competitors due to more accumulated practice time.

Students can learn to be consistent in their studies by building small habits. Psychologist BJ Fogg of Stanford University recommends that people start work towards a goal by adopting what he calls “Tiny Habits”- essentially baby steps that lead them to incrementally change their behavior towards what they want to accomplish.

When people start with small consistent behaviors, their motivation does not need to be very high to accomplish the task. Once they are proficient at an initial small task, they can expand it or add on another task as their motivation grows towards their goals. In a studying context, a tiny habit might mean simply logging into a learning app each day at the same time. Gradually a student can build up to working in the app for 10 minutes at a time, then up to 30 minutes or more each day. Before they know it, they have built a consistent studying habit!

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