March 11, 2018

Problem Solving, Team-Working, Communication, and Critical Thinking: Preparing Students with the Necessary Skills for a Successful Future

"Evolving business needs, technological advances and new work structures, among other factors, are redefining what are considered to be valuable skills for the future," says a report published by The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU). "Determining what these are, however, is far from straightforward."

Sponsored by Google, Driving the skills agenda: Preparing students for the future summarizes the findings of a program embarked by The EIU "to examine to what extent the skills taught in education systems around the world are changing. For example, are so-called 21st-century skills, such as leadership, digital literacy, problem solving and communication, complementing traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic? And do they meet the needs of employers and society more widely?

"To investigate these issues," the report explains, "The EIU convened an advisory board meeting of education experts and conducted a series of in-depth interviews. In addition to comments from the advisory board and the interviews, this report draws on data from global surveys of senior business executives, teachers and two groups of students, aged 11 to 17 and 18 to 25. The key findings are listed below."
  • Problem solving, team working and communication are the skills that are currently most in demand in the workplace;
  • Education systems are not providing enough of the skills that students and the workplace need; and
  • Some students are taking it into their own hands to make up for deficiencies within the education system.
The correctly notes that "the lives of today's students are very different from the lives of students for whom the existing education systems were developed. How can education best prepare young people to navigate their way through an increasingly interconnected and complex world in which factual recall will perhaps matter less than their ability to understand differing perspectives?"

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit
Moreover, "Teachers, students and executives surveyed for this report all list problem solving as the most important skill for students' future. This emphasis is most pronounced among executives, fully 50% of whom place it at the top of the list for potential employees, while 70% expect its importance to increase over the next three years. Teachers appear to be acting on the growing necessity of problem solving, with 59% saying they have placed more emphasis on it in the classroom over the past five years."

As an employer, problem solving, communication, and critical thinking are the critical skills I find most valuable in those whom I consider hiring. The report explains that "if problem solving is to be prioritized as an educational goal, it needs to start early to be effective, teaching the most basic foundational skills with an eye to their practical application."

In addition, it pleases me to learn that "businesses surveyed for this report concur: employers from both developed (US, UK, Canada…) and developing countries (China, Brazil, Mexico…) place problem-solving at the top of their list of critical skills.

"By encouraging students to work out answers for themselves and to think of the applications and consequences of a theory or decision rather than accepting an answer they are given, schools can build problem solving skills into the way students learn throughout their education. Across the curriculum, students can be encouraged to identify a problem and generate potential solutions through discussion and evaluation, a method which ensures that they fully understand the answer they arrive at."

While I agree team-working is an essential skill, I equally value my colleagues' ability to work independently. Self-motivation and self-regulation are additional skills that I appreciate. This article by Northeastern University provides a good discussion on working independently.

With respect to communication skills, the report importantly notes communication "means different things to different people. Effective oral communication is a fundamental tool to function in both work and society more broadly, but some employers fear that equally vital written communication skills are being lost." Sir John Daniel, a global leader of education, poignantly says, "Communication as it's referred to today tends to mean oral communication, but then you have employers complaining that people can’t write a coherent sentence."

I consider written communication to be an effective tool for thoroughly analyzing a problem and developing a viable solution. I find myself increasingly frustrated that people have become more dependent in creating PowerPoint presentations for written communication. Bullet points are an inadequate method for effective communication.

What is more, effective team-working, in my experience, is derived from thorough oral and written communication by each member of the team.

On the question of how are skills of the future best taught, "According to experts interviewed for this report, 21st-century skills cannot be taught in isolation. In order to be effective, they must be integrated into every subject area, so that skills development becomes inseparable from the sharing of knowledge."

What are the most critical skills should employees possess today and in the near-term? What is the best method to teach these skills?

Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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