10 Skills for “Doing” School

I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, “I never let schooling get in the way of my education”.  Unfortunately, Twain had a point; there are skills that you need to do well in order to “do” school well in the current system of education.  If a student is unable to polish up on these skills it becomes difficult to achieve success in today’s schools.

Here is my list of the 10 skills (in no particular order) that students need to work on in order to become good at “schooling”.

  1. Stay in your desk – do not get up to talk to anyone, go to the bathroom, or get a drink unless you ask.
  2. Put your hand up to speak – do not call out.
  3. Do what you are told; comply – do not question what is said or how things are done; do not be different.
  4. Do your own work – do not collaborate as we need to know what you know not what your partner knows.
  5. Memorize – do not apply learned knowledge beyond what is needed for the test.
  6. Do your homework – and do all of it, even if you understand it – or worse, you do not understand it.
  7. Line up and walk down the halls quietly – order is important, other people are watching how you act.
  8. Stay on task – do not focus on thoughts other than what is being taught, or until the bell rings.
  9. Excel at numeracy and literacy – do not worry about the arts, PE, or the trades as they are not important.
  10. Strive for rewards – stickers, percentages, letter grades, awards are all important.

Alright, so you can hopefully read the sarcasm in the above list.  I have to admit that as a teacher, I have unfortunately overemphasized these skills many times throughout my career (and still catch myself doing so).  The aforementioned skills will help students to do well in school; if they hone all of these skills, they most likely will get good grades and make their teachers and parents happy.  What being successful at these school skills will not ensure is that the student is educated and will prosper beyond formal schooling; in life outside of formal schooling, there are more important, deeper learning qualities such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving as well as character skills such as love, care, compassion, and empathy that will help students to truly flourish in life.

Unfortunately, we have all been raised in a system that places emphasis on these skills so we all think this is the norm.  We are also in a system that has high class sizes, low teacher support, and a broad and demanding curricula that forces many teachers to have to maintain control and order of their classes just to survive the day.  There are, however,  teachers and educators that are trying to change the system; they are trying to create a system that places more emphasis on student learning and education and less emphasis on schooling.  It is important that we start hearing the success stories of these educators – teachers that are spending less time on rewards, grades, memorization, tests, and control and more time on student engagement and learning.

What it comes down to is determining how we define the purpose of school. David Coulter, at the University of British Columbia, speaks of how schools should be there to help students create their path to lead a good and worthwhile life; how the “good and worthwhile life” is defined is up to each individual.  If we define education this way, we need to question if the skills that are emphasized in the current system encourages students to develop their own path toward a worthwhile life.

The biggest frustration for me is that schooling and learning are not the same things – a student who struggles with the skills needed for school often begins to believe that they are unsuccessful learners.  We need to start focusing on the individual strengths and interests of our students and start putting learning, rather than schooling, at the centre.  By doing this we will hopefully move toward an education system in which schooling, learning, and educating are all synonyms – a system where “doing” school has a much deeper meaning for our students.

For some quality work on this topic, please read the writings of educators/authors David Coulter, Guy Claxton, Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Great blog Chris, my kids are montessori students, and we feel strongly about collaborations, problem solving, life lessons, generally learning in a safe, supportive enviroment.

  2. Thanks for your comments Melanie. I think there are a lot of programs that are doing great things… we all need to reflect on what is best for kids and then do it! We need to stop narrowing our view of education and start to focus on what is important for learning in general.

  3. the key to doing school is to “be aware”. I ahve given the advice to some of my students to just give me 15 minutes. those will be the most important 15 minutes of the class. i don’t tell them when the 15 minutes will happen.

    being aware of what needs to be done to meet the expectations of us teachers who are required to teach a ridiculously large curriculum.

    just be aware.

  4. Thanks Malcolm. It is too bad that we cannot be more flexible with the curriculum so that they can be aware more often. Things like large curricula and class size have less impact when students are learning things in which they have choice and are truly interested. If I am at a Pro-D and I have no interest in the topic, the speaker will often lose me (unless they are brilliant). I have taught at both the elementary and secondary levels and I have to say that there is less pressure to focus on the curriculum in the younger years and thus more focus on the student.

  5. Your points are some of the many for why we homeschool our two sons via the Ohio Virtual Academy. Here, we focus on LEARNING, concentrate on the students without a huge class, utilize excellent curricula created by K12, and allow our boys the chance to fully investigate topics that interest them.

  6. ‘A student who struggles with the skills needed for school begins to believe they are unsuccessful learners.’ So if we do connect the dots, please make every effort to ensure our children can read decode and write cursives after years of schooling, give them the advantage and deeper learning qualities to be successful learners and engage in their individual ways, creating their path to a good worthwhile life but don’t cop out or see this as a debility or from a deficit or shortage point of view. Focusing on differences, self-esteem and creativity without some requirement of proficiency and literacy levels and endless strategies in response to student ‘behaviours’ which were likely their reaction to an entirely different issue. ‘See’ the root problem and ensure through explicit skills achievement testing that the deterioration of basic literacy levels may be affecting 30% of our children as early as grade 6 and then anyone trying to change the current system may be able to if they tread carefully when speaking about individualism or a type of privatization in a mandated public school system that has to have broad demands and may not make everyone happy but should be able to give everyone the same advantage through literacy first and then learning.

  7. Great that this post has been circulating on Twitter again!

    What about this idea…if it hasn’t already been done….can we seek out and/or pull together a list of 10 or so key points that could help us dialogue and plan to “move toward an education system in which schooling, learning, and educating are all synonyms – a system where “doing” school has a much deeper meaning for our students” ?
    Easy homework, right? 🙂

    • whew…. quite a task… but one in which we continue to work towards. I get frustrated with those who work against the school system rather than with it… that is where we need to place our efforts so we can enhance learning for many students! I am excited about the dialogue that is occurring in BC right now with #bcedplan… now to see if this dialogue turns into action!

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