Skill-Based Curriculum: Will it help students?

December 17, 2015


Rohit Dhankar

Skills based curriculum seems to be the current silver bullet for curing educational ills of the country. The Ministry of Human Resource Development discussion note on new education policy wants to “revamp … our education system to make skill development an integral part of the curriculum at all stages.”

Indian education is too often criticised for its ‘theoretical’ orientation and ignoring usable skills. This is supposed to be the main reason why it churns out supposed to be ‘unemployable’ school and college graduates. These claims as usually understood in their simplistic term may not be true; still, emphasis on ‘usable skills’ in education without compromising academic development should be welcome.

However, when one looks at the use of this term ‘skill’ in the current educational discussions several questions arise. What kind of skills are really usable in real life? How can they be taught? And more importantly: what does the term “skill” really mean? Some examples of the use of term skill (in current discussions) will be in order here: Life skills; basic language and numeracy skills; cognitive skills; self-employment skills; problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills; functional skills.

What does the term skill mean in all these cases? Is there really a common meaning of the term here? Can they be taught in the same manner across these domains? These questions become crucial when one starts developing a curriculum, teaching material, pedagogy and assessment. Just a rough skill-talk may sound very appealing in a vague debate, but will not help us develop any good educational programme.

Traditionally, the term skill was used for dexterities that could be taught directly through practice, involved but not much of knowledge and understanding, and which were of limited generalisability. For example, swimming. It could be taught directly by practice; does not necessarily need understanding of fluid dynamics. Its applicability remains very close to the situations in which it is learnt. Today, this is considered a ‘narrow’ use of the term skill; and a wider use encompasses all the things that are listed above. And therein lie a host of curricular and pedagogical problems. Just to hint at one of these problems let’s take three examples of skills: driving (it could be one of the self-employment skills), critical thinking and empathy.

Driving is a paradigmatic example of skill. It is directly teachable, little knowledge (of how the engine functions) is necessary and is not transferable; a car driver does not become a pilot automatically. Therefore, a short course could easily be designed and successfully implemented for driving. All you have to do is give sufficient practice and tell the traffic rules. And you have a thriving school of driving.

Now, think of critical thinking. A person to be a critical thinker, say in mathematics, necessarily needs a substantial amount of mathematical knowledge base. S/he needs an understanding of how mathematical reasoning works: deductive logic based on axioms and definitions, mainly. S/he needs to do a lot of mathematics, understand the principles of logic, for example inference; and has to internalise the logical relationships between abstract concepts. But it cannot be taught just by solving mathematical problems.

It requires much imagination, an attitude to stick with the logic and demanding proofs. It is highly generalizable but only on mathematical models. A critical thinker in mathematics is not necessarily a critical thinker in, say history. In history, one needs a lot of insight into interpretation of the available facts; and deductive logic works but only as a limited basis. One cannot have a short course in critical thinking (either in mathematics or in history) then; it develops in the process of acquiring a vast amount of human knowledge.

How to teach empathy

Third, let’s take empathy. It’s not even a skill. It is a feeling towards another sensitive being (humans and animals). It is a capability to feel the others’ pain. We do not know how to teach it. Though we do have some idea that a person himself treated with sensitivity and in close emotional relationships with other human beings is likely to be more empathetic to others compared to one who has not experienced such emotional bonding. We also know that a developed moral sense is likely to enhance one’s empathy with others. But there is no guarantee. And a course to teach empathy is impossible. Calling it a skill is ridiculous.

Now, when one talks of emphasising ‘capability for action’ in a curriculum; that may be a sensible thing to do. But when one treats all those capabilities as ‘skills’ education is likely to slide on the wrong path. Once you call something a skill, you get into the mode of thinking that it could be taught like driving. Which is not the case. Therefore, by over emphasising skills in school education you can make students into plumbers, drivers, computer jobbers, and hospitality workers; but not into good engineers, doctors, historians, mathematicians and scientists. And a country requires both to function well.

The skill talk in school curriculum, then, may be useful up to a certain extent, but may mislead our education if disproportionately emphasised.

A simple statistical indicator of this over emphasis on skills is that the word “skill” occurs in the MHRD discussion note for school education 25 times, “knowledge” seven times and “understanding” zero times! A close analysis of the themes and questions leaves no doubt that the overwhelming emphasis is on narrow skills; and where values and knowledge are mentioned they are more in a supportive role; while for good education you need to have it the other way round. Now, we can attempt at the least one of the questions asked in the themes document: Would skill based education help students to be employable? May be, at the lower end of the social and economic spectrum; but at a huge future cost to the student and to the nation.


The animal school: a confounding fable?

July 22, 2013

Rohit Dhankar


In last one month I encountered a curious little fable doing rounds in emails and on social networking sites. It is circulated in various truncated forms and some Indian sites claim that the author is unknown. However, a little googling reveals (how authentic Google revelations are is a different matter) the fable was written by George Reavis in 1940s and is currently available in an illustrated book published by Crystal Springs Books. The complete fable is given below for those who do not know it; those who have had more than their fill of reading it can go directly to the next section.


The Animal School: A Fable

by George Reavis

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.


The point it makes

At different times in history education system and curricula get into different kinds of ruts. The educational pendulum may swing to the extremity of uniformity and rigidity in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment etc. A sharp reaction, equally extreme, may be needed and even be very useful in correcting this extreme swing. Such reactions may come in the form of fable, slogans, one-liners, wise-cracks and so on; in addition to more reasonable critique. They serve the purpose of correcting the aforementioned swing well. This does a good job of countering excessive uniformity and rigidity.

But then some of these fables, slogans, etc. may acquire their own life beyond their usefulness, get interpreted into various ways, acquire a status of universal wisdom. At this stage they become problematic and confounding. It seems The Animal School (TAS) has entered that stage of its life.

Problems with it

In the internet gentry it seems to have become a gospel truth. There are sites that interpret it for corporate training (they can use anything, actually, for them making a point is never a rational affair, it is psychological impact they are after), pedagogues that use it to buttress multiple intelligence theory, and some make a fantastic child-centric point. Below I will try to counter some such attempts.

MI theory

First, the MI theory can hardly stand a rigorous scrutiny on conceptual and psychological grounds. The criteria given by Haward Gardner are rather loose, overlapping and do not apply properly to all varieties of so called intelligences. The book Frames of Mind perhaps did a reasonably good job of countering the equally bad concept of Intelligence Quotient, but that is almost all about it. Psychology is still struggling to understand if the various so-called intelligences are manifestations of general cognitive abilities or they are standalone independent capabilities.

Even if one takes MI theory as acceptable theory of intelligence and learning (Gardner himself did not workout its pedagogical implications initially), this theory does not say that people have only one or a few of these intelligences. The MI’s claim is that we have different kinds of intelligences and we may be better at different sets of intelligences; there is no reason to interpret intelligence only as language, mathematics and reasoning. There could be others, like, muscular, bodily-kinetic, etc. That does not mean that someone with, say, linguistic intelligence will not have bodily-kinetic or logical-mathematical. Nor does that mean attempts to strengthen by logical-mathematical intelligence will destroy my bodily-kinetic one. In TAS squirrel can climb but can not fly at all. The TAS goes much beyond MI, it tales a leap and ends in confusion.

General problems

The TAS suggests that there are as much differences in children’s interests and natural abilities as exist in eagle and squirrel. Squirrel has no ability to fly, and its body structure is totally unfit for that purpose. The eagle may struggle at climbing, but its body structure is unlikely to allow excelling in it. They have evolved that way. Do we want to suggest that humans have such natural, innate and absolutely inviolable sets of capabilities and limitations?

Most people who like this fable are also strong advocates of equality in human societies. What are the implications of acceptance of innate and binding natural capabilities for equality? Some may be good at administration and ruling and some others for scavenging; isn’t it? And from the birth, to boot. What are the implications of acceptance of such a theory on social and political equality? Are we ready to accept those implications?

Most of the world lives in democratic societies today, at least in terms of aspirations. Democracy is predicated on individual autonomy, freedom and justice. If someone is very good at music but is totally nincompoop in, say, social relations and understanding politics, how that person is going to fare in modern society? His autonomy, freedom and rights will depend on others goodwill and pity. And unfortunately autonomy, freedom and rights do not happen to be the kinds of things which others can provide this musician of ours; they have to be earned, struggled for and guarded. What kind of general abilities are required to do that? It seems, squirrel can live by climbing alone and can disregard flying; but a human being may not be able to live by music alone and disregard everything else. May be average achievement in a well defined set of understanding and abilities is not such a bad thing after all. The human excellences in particular fields have to be over and above the common abilities absolutely essential for all.

We live in a very complex society, and can not help it. That is what we are. Living in a complex society demands a wide range of capabilities; language, mathematics, science, social sciences, etc. are all parts of that wide range of capabilities. We can not do without them. Alas, our lives are not like squirrels, elephants, eagles and badgers. Our children will face much greater problems in life if they neglected the capabilities counted in general education; difficulties they face in mastering the wide range of capabilities in school are just nothing compared to what they might have to face if they neglected them.


19th July 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Digantar, Jaipur and Azim Premji University, Bangalore.