Nine Skills That Will Help Make Our Children Future-Ready

Life Skills September 15, 2014

Leading futurist John B. Mahaffie looks at the personal and learning skills that will make our children successful in the future. 

Please bring to mind a child of today, a boy or girl who is eight, nine, or 10 years old. Cast their life forward 20 years. It will be the year 2034. That child will be about 30 years old, making his or her way in a job somewhere. But what sort of job? What do we know today about how to prepare that child for the future?

The chances are the jobs you know best today will be different or may not even exist in 2034. What may take their place is uncertain. We work as parents, community leaders, educators, and policymakers, every day, making decisions to prepare children for their distant future lives. But we are working, in part, blind.

We must discover all we can know about what that world will be like in the future, and try to guide our policies and educational efforts from that. Instead, too many of our efforts stand, at best, in today. We guess or assume things about the future with too little foresight. 

In this analysis, we look at: 1). What we know about our changing world and how it drives change in work, and 2). Personal and learning skills that will make our children successful in the future. This gives us not a design for new curricula, but a set of challenges to address as we build them.

What do we know with some clarity about the future?
Based on what is emerging and changing now, we can say that: 
·       Our lives and work lives will be swept by regular waves of change
·       More work will involve international connections and citizenship will gain a more global focus
·       More work will be multidisciplinary, involving new kinds of collaboration
·       Far more jobs will mean working intimately with digital machines and intelligent systems
·       More elements of work and life will use visual communications
·       The world will be battling sustainability issues in ways that will affect most workers
·       Citizenship responsibilities will only grow more complicated as societies confront new issues 

Nine skills children need for their future
Preparing for uncertainty raises the question up from the specific to the more general, from workplace skills we can define today to skills that prepare a child for an uncertain range of possible futures and for steady change. What are those things?

1. Love of Learning — With no certainty about the skills and knowledge we will need. A desire to learn will give an individual greater success. That comes from experiences as a child in which learning is challenging, interesting, rewarding, and fun, and sometimes includes what the child wants to learn.

2. Skill at learning — Learning to learn is a teachable skill and should be at the core of the school curriculum. This includes iterative efforts at instilling and advancing learning skills, and giving students the chance to reflect and learn about how they learn best.

3. Self-knowledge — Self-knowledge is thus a central skill. A critical part of it is humility, but another is self-confidence. The self-aware child will grow to be someone who can and wants to talk to all sorts of people. To listen well and to continue to learn.

4. People sense — Children may be naturally self-focused and thus in practice, selfish. There is a way out. We can work with them to understand the situations others are in, the points of view that other people have. The child who develops people sense will be a strong collaborator.

5. Communication — Communication includes spoken, written, and increasingly, visual communication, and will be fundamental to most kinds of work. This is strengthened by people sense, and in turn improves and strengthens skill at collaboration.

6. Worldliness — Not all education happens in school. Consider the advantages of the child who has been to the capital city and has seen what’s there compared with the child who has never left the village. Or, to be fair, also the child who lives in the city and has never seen a farm or village.

7. Comfort with complexity — The world is not driven by simple cause and effect and big questions are not black or white. Our world is full of subtlety and complexity. Examining it and understanding it that way is essential for success in work and in life.

8. Goal setting — Successful people learn how to set goals and meet them. For the employer, this means they are productive. For the individual, this can mean personal success and advancement. 

9. Open minds — No success is possible if we don’t raise children to become adaptable, thoughtful, open-minded adults. Theirs will be a world of constant challenge and change, and being strong and prepared means being able to change.

Innovative programs around the world put a focus on at least some of these nine skills, often with curricula that emphasize experiential learning, collaboration, and a focus on the learner’s own interests, needs, and motivation.  For example, many of the tenets of progressive education mesh with, or directly support, these critical skills and provide a philosophy and framework for addressing them even more.  International Baccalaureate programs include core concepts of holistic learning, intercultural awareness, and communication. In the US, the Common Core drives a focus on readying children, even at the elementary level to understand how they learn. 

But while this innovation continues, a “back to basics” push may overweigh interest in this kind of skills building. And that would mean a loss of the depth and strength we need to instill in young minds around the world.

What we can tell now about the long-term future indicates something clearly: literacy in old but also new forms and general education, are critical. But the pressures today for a focus on vocational education and on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), could easily be overplayed, tipping the balance in our education systems too far from the core learning and learning to learn which will prepare students for the unknown. 

Let’s not allow deeper education to yield to the shorter-term needs of the workplace. Those jobs, which want to dictate curricula, right now may be gone and certainly will be changed within a few years. Specific job skill training is for the workplace. Education is for the schools.