Education – What Skills Should We Build for a Lifetime?

I have written about my vast and varied experiences with education. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about what education should be, I just know that a lot of what I endured didn’t work for me, and much of our daughter’s schooling to date has hasn’t worked for her. And it’s very hard to say what will work for kids in the future, or to know what sort of citizens schools should be aiming to form, let alone advise them on how to do so.

I had the good fortune to go to a remarkable high school with high academic standards, small class sizes, and talented, dedicated teachers. Given all that, I could have achieved straight A’s and a scholarship to MIT, right? The fact is, I could never be bothered to put in the work that straight A’s would have required. I studied just hard enough to stay on the honor roll (so that I could study in my room instead of in the dining room during mandatory evening study halls). I worked hard on the subjects that interested me, and coasted through the rest – I was never motivated to get grades for their own sake.

I don’t remember most of the facts I learned in high school – who does? What I remember are skills: writing (and typing!), page layout (I worked on the yearbook), editing (school newspaper), leadership (student government) and community service (I did art for the school). Some important skills (research and writing) I developed in English and history classes, but most were acquired during extra-curricular activities.

Some of the skills I use today I couldn’t have learned in high school because they simply didn’t exist back then: desktop publishing, word processing, building websites, communicating by email, designing software. As the world changes ever more quickly, it is likely that our children will need skills that we cannot imagine today, let alone teach them in school.

My college studies were even less directly relevant to my working life today. I was one of only 15 undergraduates majoring in Asian Studies at the (enormous) University of Texas, but our department was swamped with business school undergrads taking courses in Japanese language and culture, as an “obvious” asset to their business careers.

“What are you majoring in?” these young preppies would ask me.

“Asian Studies and Hindi.”

“What are you going to do with that?” they would sneer.

Lo and behold, twenty years later, my life experience and academic knowledge of up-and-coming India may well be more valuable than their knowledge of Japan. (And how I wish I’d stuck with my Chinese language studies!)

So what use is education as we know it today? I wonder. It still fulfills its social function of keeping young people out of a crowed job market, but I’m not sure that that’s a service to the young people themselves. The best we can hope for is that they learn a few universal skills that are likely to serve them later (more on that below), and, most importantly, learn how to learn – as has been said by wiser folks than me, in today’s world we must all expect to go on learning throughout our lifetimes.

Life Skills

No one should leave high school without knowing how to:

  • Type at least 50 words per minute. Sure, someday voice input with computers will become truly viable. But most of us don’t speak the way we write, nor would we want to write the way we speak. Formal writing is and should be different from everday speech, so, unless you’ve had a lot of practice at formal speech, the fastest way to get formal writing into a computer is to type it.
  • Use the Internet for research, including critical evaluation of sources. Before the web, the fact that a text made it into print for mass circulation was more or less a guarantee of quality, and it was usually reasonable to believe what you read. The Internet has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher, so we now have billions of sources, but very little quality control. The ability to distinguish true from false is therefore critically important.
  • Create websites/blogs (that is to say, publish yourself online, with whatever technology is prevalent).
  • Use other forms of online communication, including video. Today, those of us who write well have an advantage on the Internet. Over the next decade, video may well supplant the written word as the primary means of communication. People who perform well in front of and behind the camera will then have the advantage. Start practicing now!
  • Get along with all kinds of people. In today’s small and globalized world, sooner or later we find ourselves living and working with people of different cultures, languages, religions, etc. Misunderstanding and incomprehension lead to strife. You don’t have to agree with everyone you meet, but, if you could at least see where they’re coming from and imagine why they think the way they do, perhaps it would be easier to live together.

I’m sure there are more essential life skills we could be teaching our teenagers – suggestions from the floor?

Suggestions from Jakob Nielsen

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