With a new grandchild on the way in 2019, I’m wondering how we good people expect to teach the next generation when we’re anything but.
In 2019, I’m going to get a new grandchild. Yes, thank you, I’m very excited too. The baby’s sister has put an order in for a boy, because the idea of having a boy to boss around is very appealing. She also wants somebody who is nice and cooperative. Both are difficult instructions to follow, but given the choice, I would rather grant her the latter than the former. Sisters are, of course, a pain in the neck, but you can learn to appreciate them. Somebody who is nasty and contrary, though, is a whole different kettle of fish. Ask teachers all around the world, and employers too: character is one of the most important things in both learning and working. Still, that is not what is in the curriculum in most schools. We teach reading, writing, maths, science, PE, history, geography, economics to children. But character, or how you deal with others, usually only comes to the fore if there is a problem. We tell children off when they are overstepping the mark, but are much less clear about what positive behaviour is. Most schools don’t teach it, regardless of the fact that workplaces are crying out for employees who can be what my granddaughter demands of her new sibling.
In academic literature, they call them non-cognitive, or soft, skills. And in the last five years or so, many, many thousands of boffins have written tens of thousands of articles, based on research, on what they are. Of course, the list is endless: self-regulation, perseverance, resilience, empathy, interpersonal skills, lateral thinking, creativity, ethical behaviour, honesty, grit, tolerance, responsibility – all those lovely, almost old-fashioned, characteristics that make somebody a joy to be with. And that will become more and more important in the future, when our children and grandchildren will have to operate in the context of what is now called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Jobs then will not just be focused on technology, but on a blend of technology and AI, robotics and a whole lot of other things that we can only dream of now. The key to this brave new world is communication, and people who can make connections to other people will be the masters of the universe.
That is interesting, because that means that education will have to change. At the moment, we are teaching skills, mostly by telling children to memorise things and reproduce them in a test. We like tests, because they are clear and simple. Either you do well, or you don’t, and at the end of a school year, teachers tot up the results and decide whether a child can go to the next stage. Most jobs, of course, don’t work like that at all. They are not about what you know or can cram into your head for reproduction. Good jobs are about invention and collaboration. When I was studying journalism, one of my teachers once said that the most important professional tool was a coin to call a subject matter expert, and a pen to write down what they said. Now, of course, you don’t need coins anymore, or pencils, but you get my drift.
If we know what future generations need, but we haven’t got it in us to teach them, who is going to? How are we going to create empathetic, collaborative people if we can’t be that ourselves?
A few weeks ago, there was an interview in one of the Dutch newspapers with a group of history teachers. They were being confronted with a set of problems that didn’t exist even five years ago. Most of it centred around knowledge: what it was, who had it and what to do with it. One of them found it really confronting to have to deal with a 15-year-old who had read on Facebook that Hitler was really a great bloke, and believed that over anything his teacher presented in the way of facts. So she had to go back to the basics: what is a source, what is information, how do you weigh things, what is an expert? After a while, she realised that this was actually doing more for her students than just learning about the Second World War. Starting from (almost) scratch and building, by investigation, teamwork, lateral thinking and separating fact from fiction is exactly what most of us do in our jobs now, and will do even more in the future. Sharing with others, being flexible, adapting, making decisions, being kind: they are all traits that are more useful than rote learning and coughing up the results.
For me, the fascinating issue is this: these soft skills seem to go against most of what we see around us. Wherever you look, the world is full of bull-shitters. Egocentric nit-wits, who hate other people instead of wanting to work with them. Entitlement is the name of the game, closely followed by depression, anxiety and violence if we don’t immediately get what we think we deserve. Self-regulation, one of the top five non-cognitive skills, is nowhere to be seen. Tolerance, honesty, being able to listen and learn? Gone the way of the dinosaur, evaporated beneath twitching Twitter-fingers and the trigger of a gun. So this is my question: if we know what future generations need, but we haven’t got it in us to teach them, who is going to? How are we going to create empathetic, collaborative people if we can’t be that ourselves?