Promise #3: Students Learn Life Skills

May 23, 2019

If kids learn traditional academic content 2x faster, what do they do with the rest of their school day?

They learn the critical things that traditional schools fail to teach: life skills.

We teach life skills through a project-based curriculum. Students tackle these projects as individuals, with a group, or as a part of a level workshop, earning points towards completing the life skill requirements for their level.

Projects are interconnected — basic projects serve as prerequisites for a progression of more advanced projects (even across life skills categories). Each project is oriented around a specific learning objective and has clear criteria for successful completion.

But what exactly do we mean by “life skills?” We’ve wrestled with defining a comprehensive set. It’s tough. Real life is messy and complicated and there’s no universal recipe for success. So our life skills “board” is a living document. It is continually evaluated by students and iterated upon by guides.

When adding new life skills projects to our curriculum, we follow a set of core principles:

1. We teach concrete skills, not squishy qualities.

We orient our life skills curriculum around specific, teachable, and measurable skills.

One project series might teach students to set daily goals, and understand how they lead to session- or year-long outcomes. Another might teach them the power of compounding and principles of personal finance, or how to build and market an iOS app. They can learn how to manage teams of peers or adults, have difficult conversations, give and receive productive feedback, make decisions probabilistically, or write a cold email so good it can’t be ignored.

When students learn concrete skills, they build integrated, holistic qualities like “leadership” and “adaptability” along the way. And they gain the confidence to chart their own path through life.

2. Real projects are better than artificial ones.

We believe that students can tackle real-life challenges and problems, not just artificial ones. The best projects have real outcomes and real stakes.

We don’t teach academic speech and debate — we teach students to give presentations and pitches, give a welcome speech at a gathering, or rally their team after a tough meeting. Why have students imagine a fake product, when they could design and build a real one? They don’t learn to code by reading a textbook or listening to a lecture; they learn to code by building apps.

Tests of success and failure should be rooted in reality: as one aspiring paleontologist noted, no one needs to be able to identify thirty dinosaur bones in thirty minutes.

3. If it will benefit our students, it goes on the board.

It’s that simple.

If a specific skill will help our students excel on the road ahead, it gets included. There’s no explicit maximum to the number of skills our curriculum will cover, and we’ve already developed projects for more than twenty life skill areas.

Students — particularly those in the oldest levels at Alpha — have the agency to choose which projects they pursue. This sets a high quality bar for life skill content and means that ultimately the best, most engaging projects rise to the top.

It’s not enough for a project to teach a skill. When it comes to our life skills curriculum — as in every area at Alpha — student feedback and love of school are at the heart of what we do.