Now, More than Ever, We Must Teach Skills and Abilities. Here’s a Quick and Easy Framework for Doing So.

Chapter 3 of the 2017 report on undergraduate public relations education published by the Commission on Public Relations Education examines key skills students need to succeed in entry-level positions. When it comes to skills, practitioners rated social media management and research & analytics skills in the top five, alongside writing, communication and editing (see page 49). Yet, these same practitioners rated entry-level practitioners as not having these skills to the extent that they were desirable.

The survey results indicate that more than knowledge, the industry today seeks skills and abilities, suggesting “that the labor market is most concerned about what entry-level practitioners can do and produce when they are in the market.”

What abilities were most sought after by employers? Creative thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking top the list. Yet again, employers perceived that entry-level practitioners did not have these abilities to the extent that they were desired.

Clearly a gap exists between what students are learning and what employers are looking for.

It is hard to prepare someone to succeed in a rapidly changing landscape, where an increasingly wide and constantly shifting range of skills, abilities, and knowledge are needed. This problem is compounded by the fact professors often have limited or no access to the tools and resources available to the industry.

Fortunately, a growing number of companies are offering social listening, social media management, and analytics software for free or at discounted prices to university classrooms. Examples include Meltwater, Hootsuite, Microsoft Dynamics, and HubSpot. There are also many free tools that professors can use, including Twitter Analytics, Instagram Insights, and Facebook Insights for metrics. Free certification programs through Hootsuite, HubSpot, Google, Cision, and others provide industry-leading knowledge and case studies to help students prepare for their careers.

The good news is that the tool you use to teach the skill isn’t as important as what is gained from using the tool. Skills and abilities are flexible and adaptable. They can be upgraded from a free tool in the classroom to enterprise level software in the workplace.

Yet, access to industry software and educational materials alone are not enough to bridge the gap. It’s not what you teach. It’s how you teach it.

A Framework for Teaching in the Age of Experimentation

I have found that I am most successful when I use a simple framework for teaching and making connections between knowledge, skills and abilities. If you have taught before, chances are that you are doing several of these steps already. But by codifying the process, we become more mindful and efficient educators. Think of this framework as a shortcut for quickly mapping out a lesson.

The approach is: What, Why, How, Do, Reflect (WWHDR).  

Here’s how it works. Start by establishing the learning goals. That is, what are the knowledge, abilities, and skills that you want the learner to learn? Don’t rush this. If you don’t know what you want someone to learn, chances are they won’t learn it.

Example: I want my students to know what social media listening is. I want them to apply their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities to determine what conversations they should monitor for our client. I want them to learn how to set up a search and monitor the results to identify who is talking about our client.

Notice that above I have a goal for knowledge, one for abilities, and one for skills.

Once you know your goals for the lesson, begin planning the What, Why, How, Do and Reflect portions of the approach.

  1. What – What is the topic that you are teaching? This may be delivered in a brief lecture with background information, key terms, examples or case studies, and so forth.
  2. Why – Why is the learner learning this? Here you explicitly connect the subject with the purpose for the learner, often as part of the brief lecture. Perhaps you have examples of positive or negative consequences you can share. By telling the learner why they are learning the topic, you are beginning to build a connection to application. Plus, you make the lesson more personally meaningful to the learner.
  3. How – Here the learner learns how they will apply the knowledge. This may include tutorials, hands-on guidance, and conversations about important considerations the learner should keep in mind when doing the task. However you deliver it, be sure to include important skills and information the learner needs in order to do what you are asking. I’m a believer in offering multiple modalities and allowing the learner to choose from the resources given based on their comfort level. For example, a tutorial may be sufficient for some while hands-on help applying the new skill may be needed for others.
  4. Do – This is the all-important activity time. It often coincides with the How stage. The learner puts the lesson into practice. The more opportunities the learner has in this stage, the better. This should combine abilities – such as problem solving – with application of skills. Let the student do the work. When they struggle, ask them guiding questions.
  5. Reflect – Unfortunately, this important part of the framework is often skipped. Here the learner is asked to reflect on what they did, with a goal of getting the learner to make the connections between what, why, how and do for themselves. It also provides opportunities for the learner to make improvements. This can be done through discussion with a learning partner, with a group, as well as through a written or quantitative reflection.

This framework is flexible and can be applied to lessons that take an hour or lessons that take a month because it can be broken down and repeated in stages in order for one to learn mastery. For example, you can create a lesson to teach basic skills and then build on it with another lesson, and another.

To use this framework, no software is needed. It can be used to teach knowledge, skills and abilities in most any subject. For example, in my persuasion class I use it to teach students persuasion theories, critical thinking skills and ethical decision making around those theories, and then, how the students can apply those theories in the real world through a component I call “persuasion in action.”

Get started. It’s easy. Take a piece of paper and write out your learning objectives at the top. Divide the rest of the paper into sections of What, Why, How, Do, Reflection. Begin planning your lesson; just be sure to keep all 5 stages in mind. You got this!

-Cheers!

Matt

Photo public domain via Lennart Kcotsttiw.

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