Teaching Transferable Skills Using Routines: Self-Direction


As teachers begin to implement Vermont’s graduation proficiencies, I am getting a lot of questions about teaching transferable skills.  I don’t actually think this is new for teachers but since we have never been explicit about addressing skills like self-direction, collaboration, communication or problem solving as a content, so to speak, we haven’t yet articulated what this looks like as something that is taught explicitly. One of the ways I think teachers already teach these skills is through routines. Many students struggle with self-direction, so I collected some of the ideas below that I have seen being implemented and “teach” self-direction.

Solo Cups

transferable skillsOne of the indicators for self-direction is to “demonstrate initiative and responsibility for learning”.  The first step in figuring out how to teach these skills is to identify what they “look” or “sound” like in action.  One way a student could demonstrate this indicator is to identify when they need help or have a question and ask for assistance.  Several of our teachers are using colored cups to identify their need for help. Green cups mean the student is confident about what they are working on.  Yellow cups represent that a student needs help but is able to continue to work. Red cups are a sign that a student has a specific question that they need answered before they can move on.  The teaching piece happens when a routine like this is introduced and then the routine itself offers an opportunity for students to practice.  Teachers can use moments when the routine is not being used appropriately to provide feedback in order to reinforce the direct instruction.

The environment

The next three strategies are related to the same indicator as above. An English teacher has set up his room so that students physically decide where they are at in the learning process and sit at a specific table related to that.  In his class, it looks something like a table for “I need to read”, “I’m caught up with the reading but I am confused”, “I need help getting started” and “I’m caught up and I get it”.  He moves around the room checking in with students as needed and having discussions with them about their learning and next steps. Students need to identify where they are in their learning and make appropriate choices.  As he checks in with students, he identifies and processes issues with these choices providing moments for feedback and reinforcement of teaching.

Checking in

Using a check in/ check out routine that includes daily goal setting can helps students demonstrate (and practice) initiative and responsibility for learning.  Students create a goal at the beginning of class and then reflect on where they are with that goal at the end of class.  This reflection allows students to process what worked or didn’t work as well as develop a plan for the next class.  This could be collected on paper, through a google form or through a platform like google classroom, Edmodo or Schoolology.  Collecting it allows teachers to keep up with where students are and how they are progressing, again offering that opportunity to give feedback or provide further teaching.

Goal Setting  

sign symbolizing indecision, choices, opportunity, the way forwardI recently sat with a student as she developed a goal around time management to improve her self-direction.  After a lot of probing questions, she described the obstacle as “when I arrive to my academic time (AT) block, I don’t always know what to work on so I don’t get started right away and I get distracted easily”.  We developed a very specific step to address this issue.  The student agreed that she would plan ahead what tasks she would be working on each day during this time and she would add it to her iPhone calendar.  I helped her look at her grades and consider upcoming assignments.  Then we created very specific tasks that she would be working on during this time.  The tasks are specific enough that she doesn’t have to think about it all when she gets to class.  One such task was “type personal narrative essay and hand it in on google classroom”.  I checked in with this student after we made the goal to make sure she followed through.  I will check in with her again to see if it worked in a week.  This very time consuming process of setting goals is certainly another effective way to teach self-direction although not always practical.


In order to teach students how to “persevere in challenging situations”, one teacher is setting up a space in the room where students can go to get “unstuck”.  This space will have some activities that may increase mindfulness or creativity in order to get unstuck.  She talked about having brain teaser puzzles, Rubik’s Cube and coloring activities.  It might also be  place where students can simply talk to someone else about where they are stuck and process verbally.  Because this is a physical place in the room, she can keep an eye on anyone who isn’t getting unstuck and intervene.  This routine teaches kids some strategies that they can use in any situation. It also allows students to increase their awareness of this natural, yet frustrating part of learning.


As students are being offered more curriculum options and choice, teachers are naturally creating routines that help scaffold the learning of these skills.  I think it is important to recognize that teaching transferable skills is not “another thing” we have to do.  It is something we naturally do anyway and now that we are creating different types of learning experiences for kids, we will continue to create new strategies for them to learn the skills that are necessary for this type of learning.  What routines are you using that teach transferable skills?

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