A New Set of Skills

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Most people agree that to succeed in the 21st century, the next generation will need to develop a comprehensive set of skills that may be different from what we're currently teaching in school. These skills include:
  • Gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing information.
  • Working autonomously to a high standard with minimal supervision.
  • Leading other autonomous workers through influence.
  • Being creative and turning that creativity into action.
  • Thinking critically and asking the right questions.
  • Striving to understand others’ perspectives and to understand the entirety of an issue.
  • Communicating effectively, often using technology.
  • Working ethically, firmly based in both your own society and the planet as a whole.(1)

ITacademyGlobal companies with American roots, such as Microsoft and Cisco and Apple, understand that our economy will not thrive without constant invention and innovation, and that we need to develop a workforce capable of these tasks. Microsoft's IT Academy promotes this new form of work, and provides its students with opportunities to develop these important skills.

The workforce that served us well in the industrial age is not what we need right now. A middle-class lifestyle in the United States calls for a wage of $30 an hour plus benefits.(2) Well-educated, experienced workers in China, with excellent cognitive skills, will work for $5 an hour. If we want to earn $30 per hour in the global economy, we need to invent, innovate, and practice cognitive skills that go far beyond the routine, and do it better than the rest of the world—much better.

That’s the only hope for our economy. This point of view is echoed in a 2011 Harvard Business School study of 5,000 successful companies and innovators. J. H. Dyer, H. B. Gregersen, and C. M. Christensen found that those who thrive in the new economy share a set of discovery skills that distinguish them from the rest:

  • Observing. “Most innovators are intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them, and as they observe how things work, they often become sensitized to what doesn’t work. As they engage in these types of observations, they begin to connect common threads across unconnected data, which may provoke uncommon business ideas. Such observations often engage multiple senses and are frequently prompted by compelling questions.”
  • Questioning. “Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo, just as [Steve] Jobs did when he asked, “Why does a computer need a fan?” Innovators, like Jobs, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted.”
  • Associating. “Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.”
  • Networking. “Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives . They actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.”
  • Experimenting. “Innovators are constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way.”(3)

How many of your students today practiced all five of these modes of discovery in their school subjects? How many, upon graduation, will they be able to innovate at six times the rate of their Chinese competitors?

  1. from Cisco Systems, The Learning Society (San Jose, CA: 2009), p. 7.
  2. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median income for a family of four in 2010 was $60,000. Earning $30 per hour over 40 hours per week for 50 weeks provides that level of income.
  3. J. H. Dyer, H. B. Gregersen, & C. M. Christensen, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2011), pp. 23, 24, and 89.

((Adapted from Education 3.0, by James G. Lengel, Teacher's College Press, 2013)

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