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Preparing Workers vs. Preparing Leaders

Feb 18, 2020

Back in 2015 I wrote about the Economist magazine’s ‘skills of the future’ supplement. Just this morning I got an email from Google about their new ‘future of the classroom’ global report. It seems like little has changed in the past four years. The skills needed to prepare students for the unknowable future are still communication, collaboration, and problem solving.

In 2015 I took this as given. Of course students needed those skills. Schools needed to reimagine curriculum and programs to center those skills. In the intervening years, however, my thinking on this issue has evolved. There are two big problems I now see with this kind of pronouncement:

  1. Shouldn’t we focus more on preparing students with the skills they need to shape the future and make it better? Should we just accept that the future will be an acceleration of current trends and our kids will all have to adapt to that grim, dystopian reality in order to be competitive as workers for the massive corporations that are increasingly determining the parameters of our lives? Or should we encourage them to fight for a better future? And reform our education system to equip them with the skills they will need for that fight? Statements like this one from Google’s global report frustrate me: “With 91% of CEOs globally saying that they need to strengthen their organisation’s soft skills to sit alongside digital skills, the workplace is already looking to improve soft skills.” Why are we only asking CEOs? CEOs run for-profit corporations. 10% of the U.S. workforce is in the non-profit sector. 20% of the workforce is public sector. 2% works in agriculture. 3% is in science and engineering. 11% is in health care. Additionally, most of the people employed by large corporations are service workers. CEO’s are only telling us what they need from the management team. That’s a small percentage of the workforce.
  2. I don’t believe that the future of work is going to be all about collaboration and teams and group problem solving. There are plenty of professions that do not require those skills. There are jobs where independent thinking, solitary rumination, unusual aesthetic view points, and creative expression are more important than collaboration and sublimation of independence. Those jobs aren’t going away, they just aren’t valorized by the people with the big platforms who issue global reports on skills of the future. Kids who are not as comfortable with collaboration and social pragmatics should not be made to feel like they are somehow lacking or broken. They should be told about all of the ways they can contribute to a better future. Their talents should be celebrated instead of pushed to the side. After all, many of the people who have created the greatest art, made the most important discoveries, and built the most valuable companies were not great collaborators or communicators. They were people who had singular focus and who did not limit their own creativity by chaining it to what had already been thought or made by others.

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