What Does a “Skills Forward” Curriculum Mean?

There are plenty of distinctive ways Quest Forward Learning supports and shapes student and teacher experiences alike. Valuable tools like the individual units of learning (quests), analytics, and the learning platform itself are perhaps the most striking features. But these aspects of the implementation and organization of Quest Forward are not all that make it unique. Indeed, what it means to use Quest Forward Learning is not only to use the technology and apparatus, but to learn and teach in the style our technology is designed to enable. Among the key features that define this style of learning is its emphasis on skills—what we talk about as the “skills forward” nature of the curriculum and supporting practices.

In designing curriculum, we regularly ask ourselves the teacher’s version of the old student’s refrain: “Why am I teaching this? Why does it matter?” What it means to have a skills-forward curriculum is that the answer, more often than not, is rooted in a skill we want the student to practice or acquire, rather than a fact or thing we want the student to know or understand.

Behind our practice of grounding learning in skills is the view that it is, for instance, more important for a student to learn to write a persuasive argument than learn the names of Shakespeare’s historical dramas. Particularly in a world of readily available and searchable information, an education that tries to recreate this wealth of knowledge in each student misspends precious time, work, and interest. In such an education, skills take a back seat to the material at hand, and are present mainly as incidental occurrences in the process of learning biology, history, or English literature.

Our curriculum incorporates a foundation of skills all the way through. It starts with a vision of the well-educated individual—a description of the kinds of people our students will be as they leave us (Read more about the well-educated individual here). These characteristics are both skills and dispositions, like leadership, critical thinking, taking initiative, and so on. The goals these skills represent in turn shape the curriculum in each subject. For each of the subjects, a “skills framework” breaks down how students will develop the skills of careful and creative thinkers while engaging with the material. From here, individual quests are crafted to help students step forward in their acquisition of those skills.

The role of skills in the curriculum is easiest to see in action: A skill from the humanities, for instance, is “Take a Position,” which refers to the capacity of graduating students to “Develop a clear, well-motivated argumentative position on a topic, moving from opinions and impressions to a focused, defensible, and plausible claim.”

  • This skill is envisioned as growing from student successes in 9th grade after they master “engaging a controversial topic” and “identifying one’s interests, tendencies, and preferences.” One way students practice this initial stage of the skill (in the Foundation Phase quest “You Have the Right To…”) is by forming and presenting their views on whether access to the internet is a human right, drawing from the characterization in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
  • By the 10th grade, students are expected to begin offering reasons for their responses to controversial topics, and to “construct arguments with clear, defensible claims.” To help cultivate this behavior, activities from a 10th grade unit on our relationship with nature ask students to develop their views about genetic manipulation in response to a fictional scenario in which humans are genetically tailored for different professions.

This skills-forward approach to the creation of a curriculum is different from one that starts from a picture of the well-informed individual, considering first what students will need to know or understand, and then setting about building toward that goal.