What Do Your Children Need to Know to Succeed in Today’s World? and What Can You Do to Help Them at School and at Home?

The world is changing at an extraordinary pace.  Twenty-five years ago, most young people who mastered the “3 r’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic and had a high school diploma were likely to be able to get and keep a decent job.  Not so today.  In research for my new book, I’ve come to understand that there are seven “survival skills” all young people need to master for success in today’s world.  The skills needed for careers, college, and citizenship have converged.  Students who leave high school without them are far less likely to get a good job, succeed in college, or be an active and informed in our democratic society.

All Kids, New Skills

Here are the Seven Survival Skills, as described by some of the people whom I interviewed:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
“The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside . . . The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills.  You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”
— Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies

Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
“The biggest problem we have in the company as a whole is finding people capable of exerting leadership across the board . . . Our mantra is that you lead by influence, rather than authority.”
— Mark Chandler, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco

Agility and Adaptability
“I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business . . . I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”
— Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards

Initiative and Entrepreneurship
“For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people . . . who can find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.”
— Mark Maddox, Human Resources Manager at Unilever Foods North America 

Effective Oral and Written Communication
“The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations.  It’s a huge problem for us.”
— Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems

Accessing and Analyzing Information
“There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.”
— Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell

Curiosity and Imagination
“Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do whatever the employer wants . . . but actually, you would like him to come up with an interpretation that you like — he’s adding something personal — a creative element.”
— Michael Jung, Senior Consultant at McKinsey and Company

New Learning and Roles for Parents in the Community

The problem we face as parents is that these are not the skills currently being taught and tested — even in our “good” suburban schools.  In America today, I’ve discovered that there is only one curriculum in most of our schools: “test prep.”  What gets taught is only what gets tested.  And because almost all of the tests students take — from state tests for No Child Left Behind to Advanced Placement exams — require a great deal of memorization and factual recall, these are the only skills being taught in most classrooms.  As a consequence, one out of every two students who start college never completes a degree, and employers report that young people today are ill-prepared for the 21st century workplace.

The impact you can have on teacher or school or district may be limited as one individual.  I believe parents and concerned community members must work together to become effective advocates for teaching and testing the skills that matter most.

In the last chapter of my book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — And What We Can Do About It, I suggest that parents and community members must first understand some of the ways the world has changed and how schools need to differently prepare our students for success.  Book groups, PTA meetings, and discussions in our churches and synagogues all provide opportunities for the kind of adult learning we need in order to be prepared to ask school board members, educators, and policy makers some important questions like:

•    What do you think are the most important skills our high school graduates need today to succeed?
•    How are you teaching and assessing these skills?
•    How are you gauging the success of our schools — by test scores or by the numbers of students who go to college and succeed there, as well as by how well prepared students are for work?  Have you talked to employers and recent graduates of our schools to see if our students graduate with the skills they need?

New Ways to Support Our Children At Home

Many business leaders and educators alike worry about this generation’s “lack of work ethic.”  However, I’ve come to understand that the “net generation” is not unmotivated, but rather very differently motivated.  Growing up tethered to the internet as most are, today’s teens crave connection with others and learning through discovery.  They are accustomed to multitasking in a multimedia world and so find most work in schools to be pointless and boring.  But, as parents, we worry about our children’s futures and so push them to succeed in school.  We look at their grades and fret about whether they will get into a “good” college.  We push them to do more of the “right” things for their college application, and we hope that they will have a lucrative career some day.

All of these concerns are understandable, but the young adults whom I interviewed — when I asked what advice they’d give parents — told me that much of this parental worrying and pressure is actually counterproductive.

Andrew Bruck, a Princeton graduate and currently enrolled at Stanford Law School told me that “parents need to respect the extraordinary capacity of students.  Our generation wants to do things.  It’s important to nurture children’s creativity.  There’s so much pressure to succeed and to go to a brand-name school.  There’s no need for parents to pile on the stress.” 

A young woman in a focus group I conducted at a New England college agreed, saying “Parents need to support children in their dreams — even if it’s wanting to be an artist.”  Another in the group chimed in: “Parents shouldn’t worry so much about how their children are doing in school.  They should find out more about what their extracurricular interests are.”  Bruck’s high school experience certainly confirmed the importance of extracurricular activities in students’ lives.   He told me that he learned more about writing and managing deadlines and leadership from his experience as editor of his high school’s newspaper than he did from any of his classes.

Matt Kulick, a Cornell grad who now works a Google, had perhaps the best advice for parents when he said “A lot of my friends never had a good idea of what they liked or wanted to do because their parents said ‘you’re going to be a doctor’ or . . . And it doesn’t help to tell your kids to do more homework or to always ask them what grade they got.  Parents need to find out what their kids like . . . My parents motivated me to do well — not to get A’s but to give my best effort.  They trusted me.”

Being an advocate in your community for 21st century teaching and learning, and trusting your children as they explore their interests.  Easy to say, but hard to do.  As parents we, too, need to continue to develop our mastery of the Seven Survival Skills — and to be models for our children — as we grow and learn together.

©2008 Tony Wagner

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