I have spent the last week at two conferences.
The first was a gathering of summer camp professionals with a keynote by Dr Anthony Rao, an expert on boys.
The second was the SXSW Education conference with a keynote by Bill Gates, an expert on technology and education (you might have heard of him).
The first was a modest and understated affair with minimal technology. The second was massive (5000 attendees in only its 3rd year), frenetic and enabled with state of the art technology.
Both groups, however, were talented and professional. They were committed to the same ultimate goal: serving children and helping them grow into centered, productive and successful adults.
They also seemed to agree with the conclusions of two sets of studies.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills
I have mentioned the Partnership in previous blogs (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smores-and-more/201205/foster...) and in a TEDx talk I gave last fall (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rI3olRHxP4&feature=youtu.be). As a brief reminder, the Partnership is a collection of top-level companies that believe that high school and college graduates are entering the workforce with a deficit of skills. They point to a world that is flat and full of constant change and they ask, “what skills are necessary for success?”
Surprisingly, their conclusion is not that young people lack technical skills. Instead, the skill deficit is in the “4 C’s”: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. In short, even the technology companies in the Partnership are more concerned about their new employees ability to interact and collaborate than their ability to write software.
It has taken roughly a decade, but the US Department of Education now acknowledges the importance of the 4 C’s and is including them in ongoing educational recommendations. Other countries with the leading education systems (like Finland and Singapore) have wholly adopted the Partnership’s framework and are enjoying remarkable results.
Non-Cognitive Skills and Paul Tough
Last year, a former New York Times journalist named Paul Tough wrote a book called “How Children Succeed” that became a NYT bestseller – an extremely unusual occurrence for a youth development/education book.
The conclusion of the book is simple: our nation has fallen into the trap of the “cognitive theory” that believes that success in college and life is a function of IQ and knowledge: make good grades, get a good SAT score, attend the best possible college and await the inevitable success that will follow.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the cognitive theory is not correct. The research is all very recent and is overwhelmingly compelling. It reveals that certain “non cognitive skills” turn out to be more predictive of success than IQ, SAT scores or even GPA.
Different researchers give these non cognitive skills different names and I will not attempt to name them all. Instead, I will share the list developed by the KIPP schools. The KIPP schools serve primarily inner-city neighborhoods and families that did not attend college. They have a remarkable record of getting their students into college (over 90%!), but found that roughly two-thirds were not completing college. They have created a list of 7 “Character Strengths” that they believe will help their students eventually graduate from college: Grit, Self Control, Gratitude, Optimism, Zest, Social Intelligence, and Curiosity.
Back to the Conferences
The attendees of both conferences understood the results of these studies. In fact, the SXSW Edu group was even more familiar with the 4 C’s and the importance of non cognitive skills than the camp attendees.
It is at this point that the conferences became surreal for me. Every call for reform or innovation at SXSW focused on technology or the classroom. No one discussed the role of technology in the erosion of the interpersonal skills like communication and collaboration. Over and over again, I heard about the merits of teaching coding (see the video at code.org) or the power of MOOCs (massive open online courses).
Please allow me a disclaimer. I believe in technology and am a technophile. I think that coding would be a great skill to teach and that MOOCs have the potential to revolutionize huge swaths of education, especially for people who cannot attend a traditional college.
My struggle is not with these recommendations. I struggle instead with the absolute almost sacred belief in technology as a panacea. Yes, MOOCs can bring the best professors to more people, but what happens to the dynamic face-to-face discussions that follow? These face-to-face discussions are important not just for the sharing of ideas, but also for the practice of interpersonal interaction. Yes, I would like to see elementary students learn basic coding logic or use the Kahn Academy to learn math, but I also know that they are interacting with electronic screens for 52 hours every week outside of the classroom. The skills they need to feel connected to other people and to work with them are eroding.
Going back to Finland, we see a system where children spend almost 3 times more time outside during school than in the US. Free play is encouraged, which spurs the 4 Cs and creates engaged and balanced learners.
Dr Rao described the Drumlin Preschool in Massachusetts. It provides substantial amounts of outdoor time and achieving remarkable results, especially with boys who struggle in sedentary education environments. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that recess has a “crucial role” in education (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/1/183.full).
In my personal experience, I see massive increases in the 4 C’s and other non cognitive skills during a 3-day outdoor education program or a three week summer camp session. The combination of being away-from-home, free of technology and in nature is a potent one that provides lasting advantages.
Our challenge is to create a balanced approach that values coding and free play; the Internet and Nature.
Technology is the shiny new toy, but it is not a cure-all. In fact, it can be part of the problem. In the end, we need to understand what it helps and what challenges it creates. Once we do so, we will be able to prepare our children for the challenges of tomorrow.