What You Actually Should Learn from School

I was in school for a pretty long time (12 grades + 4 years undergrad + 3 years grad school…AHHH!) so the fact that I only really figured out what I should have been learning after I graduated and started teaching is kind of shocking. Upsetting? No, it’s really more of a face-palm feeling.

If you were somehow given a list of “learning objectives” by a considerate soul somewhere on your academic journey, no matter how long it was, then you were given a great favour. Nobody gave me such a thing. There’s no “University 101” course at any of the places I studied.

But great news: I’m so terribly eager to spread the word about learning objectives now.

Okay, so before we get started, I am totally aware that this sounds really boring and niche. And I know that I’m a bit of a study skills monster. But here’s why I think it’s important to know these things:

  • because way, way too many people I know left their degree programs thinking they had no real-world skills
  • I’ve seen so many shitty resumes that don’t leverage anything that the person learned in their education
  • realizing you actually have these skills is the first step in harnessing them and applying them to your work or projects
  • and because it’s fantastic to have learned a lot of facts (as my parents say, I went to school enough to become a great dinner party guest), but you should also be learning skills, which are disguised within your coursework like easter eggs – and you should be allowed to know what you’re looking for!

For all of these reasons, I think it’s both responsible and advantageous to know what exactly your education is supposed to be really teaching you. I’m not a fan of teachers or professors having secret objectives to their lessons that they don’t share, at some point, with the students.

I created my list of learning outcomes with the help of the University of Guelph‘s Learning Outcomes page and Deakin University’s Graduate Learning Outcomes. Most universities offer their own document or webpage sharing this kind of information; most students have no idea it exists.

So, without further ado, here we go!

Digital Literacy

This is a very buzzword-y start, but digital literacy is a lot easier to achieve than you’d think. This is particularly true for current or recent students, since understanding technology is pretty much innate in the younger population set.

But digital literacy is more than simply being intuitive with technology – you can’t teach intuition! Consider the following skills. Would you say you learned how to do any of these in your education?

  • learn how to write succinctly for an audience online (who may have limited attention spans)
  • how to use social media, and the etiquette that follows
  • basic programming skills and word processing skills
  • how to look at information online and understand it (like infographics, or how to find sources)
  • research skills: how to find the right information, and verify its quality and accuracy
  • how to navigate digital spaces (websites, applications, and even games or interactive experiences)

As you might gather from this list, these aren’t skills that anyone had to know 25 or 30 years ago. Or at least, they weren’t things that everyone was being taught.

To find opportunities to improve your digital literacy if you’re currently in school, you might start by asking permission to incorporate creative digital elements into your projects, or to build a platform online for something you’re studying. If you’re not in school, there are lots of free online courses you can take to start pointing you in the right direction – I’ve recommended some here.

Problem Solving

This one might seem straightforward, but there are a lot of aspects to problem solving that you can develop by being challenged with different sorts of problems. These might be technical (like math problems, or engineering challenges), or they might be analytical (figuring out how to handle a social situation, or how to form a good argument).

A big part of this is the ability to learn from failure. Most wonderful creations in this world are borne out of failure (though I’ve still got recipes on the mind, I think). The important thing is to be able to examine why something failed, what strategies might have prevented this, and how a future attempt can be changed to try for success.

Like the (first part of the) Samuel Beckett quote says, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Emotional Judgement

Emotional judgement comes easier to some people than others, and that’s totally okay. But it is also something that needs practice, and can really only be learned through experience.

This might mean things like being able to read cues from other people based on their words or their body language. It might mean having a sense of right and wrong and being able to apply that to a situation.

What emotional judgement also means, is the ability to manage and understand your own emotions. Luckily, this is a component of almost everyone’s education, both formal or not! If you’re feeling angry, are you able to figure out why and understand where that feeling is coming from? If you’re not able to work with a certain person, can you determine what factor is causing the problem and decide how to navigate?

There’s also the question of knowing what to do with your emotions. If you’re full of productive energy, do you spiral in circles or focus and get things done? Being able to distinguish what emotion you’re feeling and the appropriate reaction based on your goals and situation is really important in achieving balance. At least, in my humble opinion.

Innovation + Creative Thinking

This is an exciting one. The ability to come up with new ideas, theories, methods, or processes. This is all about honing your creativity and coming up with things that have never been tried before! What could be more exciting than that?

For me, innovation came mainly in the form of interdisciplinary study. I was a Classics major, but when I ended up taking an English degree, I found myself with a whole toolkit of skills that nobody else in the department had! So I used those unique skills along with the new ones I was learning to create new and interesting results. It really gave me a lot of ownership over my work, too, since nobody else could do exactly what I was doing.

The best way to develop your skills in this area is to think about what completely unrelated experience or knowledge you have to what you’re working on. Are you studying math but also really love cross-stitch? Use your artistic skills to create visual representations of your work! Maybe you’re a baker but love structural engineering. Well, you can bake a cake with secret internal structures that will make it appear to defy the limits of food. That’s innovation.

Professionalism

Now, this is something that you really can develop “in the field”, so to speak. In a professional setting, your teacher becomes your boss, your classmates become your coworkers. Learning the ethics of working together before you enter the workplace makes the transition much more seamless.

So what are these skills? They’re not too difficult to understand, so here are just a few:

  • Respect: can you write a respectful email? Know how to talk with others in a professional way? This includes behaviour, too, and not just communication.
  • Reliability: can you stick to deadlines, and can others count on you to hold up your end of a project?
  • Integrity: do you work to a high standard? In school, we talk about ‘academic integrity’ – this means citing your work, not plagiarizing, and taking appropriate credit.
  • Confidentiality: are you able to adhere to requests for confidentiality, and to know when it is or is not appropriate? In many workplace situations, employees deal with data or info that isn’t meant to circulate outside the office. The same is true in school – sharing answers, circulating papers, or selling exams are examples.

A lot of these skills can be sampled at the educational level, before they’re really enforced in a workplace. So figuring out what professional behaviour looks like in the field you want to get into will get you ahead of the game.

Communication

I don’t really care what you’re studying, or what job you want to get, or what field you work in. You need communication skills. The world just can’t survive with only awkward recluses – and if you are one, you just need to figure out how to fake it till ya make it.

This doesn’t mean that everyone should be able to stand up and give a TED talk to a thousand people. It can be as simple as knowing how to write a clear professional email, or how to navigate getting a permit or paperwork processed. It’s also about knowing how to ask questions, and how to offer up information that you possess. That means knowing when it’s appropriate, when it’s wanted, and when it’s relevant.

We build our communication skills every time we talk to someone, interact online, or even observe other people. You see how this skill ties into so many of the others on this list – teamwork, digital literacy, and professional ethics.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the simple ability to absorb some information and then form an opinion on it. It’s about understanding on a deeper level – not just being able to repeat back what you were told, but to process that information and break it down, compare it to something else, or suggest other angles for understanding.

I don’t worry too much about people missing out on critical thinking skills because I think that they are something that most educational structures emphasize. Anyone required to take a high school English class has dabbled in critical thinking. But I urge everyone to consider how they are critical of the information and structures they learn about in all sorts of areas of life!

Self Care + Management

A lot of what I write about on this blog could sort of fall into the category of self-management. I don’t know how many times I was told in high school, “when you leave here, there isn’t going to be anyone telling you what to do – you have to manage your life yourself.”

This comes down to a few really basic things.

  • learning to manage a schedule, be punctual, and stay organized
  • understanding how your body reacts to stress and creating strategies to manage it
  • keeping yourself healthy by eating properly, getting exercise, and sleeping well
  • knowing when to get help, and where to find it
  • taking responsibility for the various facets of your life and setting goals

I think everyone would admit that they could be doing a little better in at least one of these areas. I know I could. But self-management becomes an important thing you learn in post-secondary environments in particular, as you’re given access to a huge range of tools and resources, but not obligated to use a single one of them. It’s on you to pick yourself up and figure out this whole life thing.

 Teamwork

Similar to some of the other objectives mentioned, knowing how to work well with others is a really important skill. This includes being a good teammate, and being a good leader.

Think about situations you’ve been in where you’re working with a group. Who took the initiative to lead? And did they do a good job? Did they listen to each member, take different ideas into consideration, and formulate an action plan going forward? Not everyone has a lot of experience in being a leader, or the knowledge of what makes a good one. Don’t be afraid to use those critical thinking skills you’re developing to consider what good leadership means to you!

Being a good teammate starts with upholding your end of the work. If you’ve been assigned something, either complete it, or share with the others the reason that you can’t (if it’s too much, or outside your expertise, or if you have personal issues conflicting). Communicating these sorts of problems with your team is an essential part of good teamwork.

Collaborating on a project is a great way to develop these skills, but sometimes these opportunities simply aren’t on the horizon. I’ve found that a good way to develop teamwork skills is by volunteering. Groups are always looking for people to help out with events, campaigns, or projects, and are frequently looking for more people to help out on a board. These are great ways to build teamwork skills that can be transferred to the workplace and represented on a resume.

Global Citizenship

The last of the learning outcomes I’m going to lecture you about is global citizenship. This is something that I think gets a bit lost in the shuffle. When you’re so busy building your skills and working on gaining experience and improving yourself, getting a little perspective can be challenging.

Global citizenship means taking an interest in the impact that what you do has on the world. It can be a small impact. But there’s no field that doesn’t contribute something that radiates out into the world in meaningful ways.

Being a global citizen also means taking an interest in things outside of your primary community. We live in a massively connected world and we have access to resources like never before. Taking an interest in global matters is the first step in making a change. I think the most important way you can be a global citizen is by being a conscious consumer, and considering the impact that your life and habits are having on the world as a whole.

It’s no small feat, and being a global citizen is a lifelong process. But it can be really rewarding and give you a sense of purpose, so why not?

I hope this post has given you a better sense of the things you should be getting out of your education, whatever that may be. I wish someone had shared these things with me sooner – though I can’t guarantee I would have paid attention!

If you know someone who you think could benefit from learning about Learning Objectives, grab the link to this post or use one of the social sharing buttons to send it onward!

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