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Would You Hire Your Own Kids? 7 Skills Schools Should be Teaching Them

Schools aren't teaching the skills our kids need. Why?

I’ve spent the last two years researching and writing a new 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 began with several questions: First, in the new global economy, where any job that can be turned into a routine is being either automated or “off-shored,” what skills will our students need to get—and keep—a good job. And what skills are needed for citizenship today? Are these education goals in conflict, I wondered.

With a clearer picture of the skills young people will need, I then set out to learn to what extent we are teaching and testing the skills that matter most. And because we already know that many of our nation’s urban schools are failing, I chose to observe classrooms in some of our most highly regarded suburban schools in order to understand whether our “best” was, in fact, good enough for our children’s future. What I discovered in this journey may come as a surprise to many.

One of my first interviews was with Clay Parker, the President of the Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards—a company that, among other things, makes the machines and supplies the chemicals for the manufacture of microelectronics devices, including silicon semiconductors and flat panel displays. He’s an engineer by training and the head of a very technical business, so when I asked him about the skills he looks for when he hires young people into the company, I was taken aback by his answer.

“First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions,” Parker responded. “Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.”

“What other skills are you looking for?” I asked, expecting that he’d jump quickly to content expertise.

“I want people who can engage in good discussion—who can look me in the eye and have a give and take.”

“I don’t understand,” I confessed.

“All of our work is done in teams. You have to know how to work well with others. But you also have to know how to engage the customer—to find out what his needs are. If you can’t engage others, then you won’t learn what you need to know.”

I was initially skeptical of Parker’s answers—thinking perhaps that his views weren’t representative of business leaders in general. But after having completed nearly 100 interviews with leaders from Apple to Unilever to the U.S. Army and reviewed the research on the workplace skills most needed, I have come to understand that the world of work has changed profoundly. There are, I discovered, Seven Survival Skills that all of our students will need to master in order to get a good job in the new “flat” world of work. I also came to see how these are the same skills young people need in order to understand and discuss some of the most pressing issues we face as a democracy in the 21st century.

1. Critical Thinking and Problem-solving

In order for companies to compete in the new global economy, they need every worker to be a “knowledge worker”—and to think about how to continuously improve their products, processes, or services. Over and over again, executives told me that the heart of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is the ability to ask the right questions. As one senior executive from Dell Computer said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.”