The Most Important Skills Students Should Learn

What are the most important skills a student should learn in school? We will agree that spiritual growth must be given priority, but once we’ve attended to the eternal, what should be considered the most critical elements of learning that impact students for the rest of their lives? Consider these two statistics that have recently emerged:

  • College students spend three times more hours socializing than studying.
  • Only 59% of full-time college students finished their bachelor’s degree within five years.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that many students lack the drive to succeed and the self-discipline to fulfill their responsibilities. We can all agree that children should go to school to learn facts – a lot of them, at that. But facts alone cannot make a student successful in life. Habit training is critical.

This brings us to the topic of what educators call, non-cognitive skills. Cognitive skills involve math, language, humanities, and other academic subjects; non-cognitive skills pertain to the shaping of a student’s character. Examples of significant non-cognitive skills include work ethic, study skills, beliefs about responsibility, and motivation to excel. These skills and character traits begin forming when children are young. When a child become a teenager, their character becomes more fixed, and when they become adults, it’s practically too late. These skills solidify throughout one’s childhood as the child undergoes new experiences with each age.

If your goal is to prepare your child to experience future success as an adult, then consider two practices you can implement now that will influence them long-term:

  • Emphasize finishing the job and finishing it well. Don’t finish for a child what they should have finished themselves. But this requires follow-up on the part of parents and teachers. If we forget to inspect after the job, this trait will never be taught. If the job was not done correctly, make them go back and do it correctly. Although it takes less time and effort to do it yourself, or to not even bother inspecting at all, the temptation arises to skip the follow-up, but that’s the part that trains character more than the original task. 
  • Value responsibility over leisure. Suppose it is Friday evening and your child gets invited by some friends to go out for dinner and bowling, but you discover that your child procrastinated two weeks on a school project that’s due on Monday. What will your child learn if you refuse to let them go out, and instead, make them work on the project? First, your child will learn that you prioritize responsibility over leisure. Second, your child will learn that leisure is earned by working hard, not procrastinating.

To illustrate the magnitude of habit training, imagine if the training new recruits receive on Parris Island was changed to facts-only instruction. They would learn all kinds of facts about artillery, military, protocol, and war strategies, but drills, eating and sleeping requirements, and exercises would be eliminated. Also eliminated would be the tough consequences for failing to comply with boot camp rules. What would be the outcome of a training method such as this? The result would be a military unfit for war because knowledge alone does not prepare soldiers for war. Likewise, ignoring habit training and non-cognitive skills leaves students ill-prepared for life. Our students need to be exercising, throughout their entire childhood, the qualities we want them to have throughout their entire lives.