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10 ways to nurture the top skills of the future

By Nancy Weinstein
April 27, 2016
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A recent report out of the World Economic Forum (WEF) says that over a third of the most important workplace skills will shift over the next five years. That’s a mind boggling rate of change, particularly when you consider school systems can take that same amount of time to approve a new curriculum.

The two skills deemed most crucial in the workplace in 2020, complex problem solving and critical thinking, are well addressed by the Common Core Standards. But those standards don’t say much about the remaining eight: creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility.

So what's a teacher to do? Not panic, for starters. First, we know that all 10 skills are directly or indirectly incorporated into the ISTE Standards for Students, so we do have good direction. But how do educators go forward knowing that content knowledge – once our key mission – is no longer enough?

Let's step back and remember that content knowledge remains essential. Foundational skills, such as vocabulary, math concepts and factual knowledge in history, science and social studies are crucial building blocks. If students do not have the automatic recall of core information, they can’t possibly draw the necessary connections to the WEF’s top three skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

However, we can't stop there. The key is to assess which information is foundational and should be committed to memory, and which subjects require only some familiarity or background. We must continue to ensure that students learn essential material through repeated and diverse exposure — and equip students with the research skills to find more information when they need it.

The good news is, educators can develop the WEF’s top skills in the context of existing classroom routines with no additional rubrics or assignments. Keep in mind that all of these skills develop over a lifetime, so even if you are working with high school students, don’t be discouraged. They still have plenty of time to grow.

  1. Complex problem solving: Make certain all your students have opportunities to try, “make mistakes” and try again. This might require differentiation, which can take more work, but it is so important for all students to stretch their reasoning skills. No student should ever earn 100 percent on a test.
  2. Critical thinking: Always give students time to ask "why?" When you are in the middle of a lesson and a student goes off topic with a “why” question, you may want to dismiss it. Instead, provide a meaningful answer, whether it’s in the moment (ideal but not always practical) or after class. Remember,  the most analytical thinkers are often those who continue to ask questions when everyone else has stopped.
  3. Creativity: Nurture each student’s innate strengths and interests. Creativity comes from a place of passion. And we are often most interested in things that come most naturally. Project-based learning encourages students to move in the direction of their strengths and discover new interests.
  4. People management: Discuss friendships and social issues. Address situations with students individually and collectively to help them understand alternative points of view. This will help them manage their own emotions and teach them how they can politely but firmly express their feelings and show the same respect to others. Learning effective conflict resolution skills during recess or free time can last a lifetime.
  5. Coordinating with others: Don’t shy away from group assignments because of the inevitable conflicts and unequal distribution of labor. Those situations arise with adults all the time. Make the time for honest group reflection after the project is handed in and graded. This is an opportunity for everyone to grow and learn, especially those who typically excel in independent work.
  6. Emotional intelligence: Show empathy. This tends to come naturally to teachers, so if you want a child to show compassion for others, start by showing empathy to them. Children develop emotional intelligence and sensitivity through their own experiences. As they develop a greater self-awareness, they will have a better appreciation for the needs of others. As they notice how you actively listen to their needs and concerns, they will learn to do the same.
  7. Judgment and decision making: Model the behaviors you want to see and discuss them as you go. If you want to improve a child's decision-making, talk through your own decisions as you make them. When students consistently hear thoughtful reasoning, they are less likely to be impulsive in making their own choices. Let students make their own decisions, whether it’s choosing a topic or picking a partner. Just be sure you allow them to live with the consequences.
  8. Service orientation: Bring service into your classroom. Certainly, this is easier in some subjects than others. However, there are always opportunities to discuss service in context. Our greatest scientists are often called upon to serve their countries. Foreign language class is a wonderful opportunity to discuss different cultures of giving.
  9. Negotiation: Let students negotiate with you. If students request a different day for the test or an alternative assignment, be open to discussion. Explain your reasoning and let your students make a counter-proposal. Teach students to negotiate in a respectful, thoughtful way and, when appropriate, reward them for arriving at a mutually acceptable solution.
  10. Cognitive flexibility: Offer problems with more than a single answer. Allow students to experience ambiguity. Show them why the most obvious approach is not always the optimal one. Help them see different ways of viewing the world so they will learn to appreciate different points of view. 

And let’s not forget that students spend only about 15 percent of their waking hours at school. When parents ask, “What should I do for summer learning?” or, “My child is bored, what else can I give him?” perhaps rather than suggesting an app or a workbook, offer this article on how they can foster these essential skills.

Nancy Weinstein is the founder and CEO of Mindprint Learning. She started Mindprint while a stay-at-home mom with her two daughters. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BSE in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She works with an expert team of child psychologists and learning specialists.

April 25-29 is Global Leadership Week. Learn how you can collaborate with other educators in virtual leadership events.