The education chasm

What does it mean when the skills we seek today in our preparation for tomorrow are the same as the ones we all held yesterday?

by Moriella Kowalski

Education 16 May 2019

The past few years have witnessed a renewal of focus on education as a whole with continuous attention on both adults and how their learning pathways are to be designed, and children and the adequacy of school systems. However, along the way, many have begun to notice that the skills which are needed for work and are most sought-after today are the skills that we as humans naturally possess in our childhood. So what could be the cause of this disconnect?

Upskilling, reskilling, mindset change, leadership, learning programs, education journeys, talent development programs and many other variations of what humans refer to as an individual or life-long personal learning or basically, education. Such growth is very closely tied to organizational  growth, as organizations are only as good as the people who make them and learning is the way through which we grow, develop and evolve.

When we talk about learning, we are not only referring to the development of hard skills (specific and technical vertical abilities). More often than not, the real request is in relation to soft skills, and it seems that today there is a growing understanding that soft skills and human interpersonal abilities are actually what makes the difference, and they are taking a more leading role in the face of an automated age.

Now, I’m not a big fan of the term soft skills (how can a skill be soft, anyway?) but it seems to have taken a common meaning and shared understanding when referring to people and their personal and interpersonal abilities or character. So let’s use this term knowing that we are really referring to those very specific human and social abilities which support the creation of relationships and culture within an organization, creating an interconnected environment from which companies can build their competitive advantage.

As business leaders understand its importance, what we are actually witnessing is an overall increase in the investment in learning and personal growth. According to Udemy, 53% of surveyed companies reported that their L&D budgets increased between 2017 and 2018. The same survey also showed that highly engaged companies spent $2000–$2500 per employee annually on learning  and that  59% of high-growth companies spend above average per employee on L&D.

One interesting development is that the top 3 skills that executives and employees alike are both investing and showing interest in are, in fact, soft skills: namely leadership, communication, and collaborationa LinkedIn report published last year showed that over 60% of employees listed these skills as a top priority. The other interesting thing found in this report is that the top challenge for both executives and recruiters is how to develop and grow these soft skills.

Through their talent acquisition plans, open innovation strategies, or even simply by observing their own children and younger generations, many of these leaders realize that the skills required to be a successful entrepreneur or the ‘new citizens and employees of tomorrow’, are intrinsically tied to the love and desire of learning and growing – namely curiosity and courage. More than that, the ability to learn is crucial for success today, the realization of the age-old Aristotelian maxim that: ‘the more you know, the more you know you don’t know’. Both factors are strong indicators of the type of person any company wants, or better, needs: in this case being humble on top of being curious and courageous.

Every so often then, as part of corporate education journeys, companies design programs that also focus on skills which the World Economic Forum defined as “skills of the future”. These ‘soft’ skills are now widely accepted as being creativity, entrepreneurship, emotional  intelligence, cultures of failure and experimentation, critical thinking and problem solving – which coincidentally are abilities and skills typical of younger children.

The newfound importance of these skills of the future has led companies today to invest in reinstalling these qualities that both education and life have seemingly managed to hammer out of us. Today more than ever we are looking to re-teach childlike traits into employees, as it is children who seem to encapsulate these skills in the most natural and intuitive way. Children are entrepreneurial by nature, risk takers, resilient, experimental, sociable, wisein their creative and critical thinking prowess, sensitive with high emotional intelligence and ultimately, they never take no for an answer, instead, dreaming big and believing that anything is possible.

So if by nature kids already possess these skills, then this begs the question: what happened along the way? If organizations are now spending good money on teaching their employees what kids already know, should we not be making sure that our own school systems do all they can to maintain these skills and develop these talents which somehow seem to disappear once we reach adulthood? Why and how are these skills for the future eroded over time to make them the skills of our past? The paradigm shift in corporations, now seeking out these skills, raises serious questions we as a society must address when evaluating our educational systems.

Sir Ken Robinson in one of the most followed TED talks of all times, Do schools kill creativity?”  says that “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it”. In a different interview, he says that we humans live in two worlds: the external world and the inner one. Through the external world we learn how things physically work, and through the inner world, we explore our emotional life and individuality. Schools, it seems, do not focus on the second world, leaving adults to search for it themselves and possibly rediscover it at later stages in life.

As the information era continues to flood us with never-ending streams and sources of knowledge, the arguments for schools as the only place for learning historical dates, complex mathematical equations, and dense passages of prose, seem to lose a certain level of relevancy. Instead, being able to discern mass amounts of information and understanding their relevance rapidly becomes more important. More so than this, we should be going to school to learn about others’ experiences, unique as they are and impossible to find elsewhere. School is the environment in which we should be able to cultivate and enhance our talents and soft skills, spend time on building relationships and expand our cultural horizon – a more viable endeavor.

In favor of schools, many will argue that school is still social. However, I would ask how many hours (or perhaps minutes) in the school day do children spend interacting with one another? Between lessons and breaks getting ever shorter the truth is that kids have little time to socialize, let alone play. Recent surveys in the UK show that more than 74% of children spend less than 60 minutes playing outside. The reality is that with ample opportunity outside these educational systems in the form of extracurricular activities, kids get much more social interaction outside than they do inside their own school where they actually spend most of their day sitting in a classroom.

This is why education seems to be on everyone’s agenda and why bigger companies are starting to invest in education and learning (or perhaps re-learning). Alternative schools are founded with the idea that it takes soft skills, together with the hard ones, to create open-minded individuals who are capable of making their own informed opinions and using their talents. It is truly interesting to see how once again our working world is looking to reshape our education world just as it did with the last industrial revolution.

As we enter the digital age, an evolving human consciousness continues to change our beliefs. It is soft skills – our essence, the understanding of what is us, of what is human – that is more important than ever. Somewhere deep inside we all already know this, and the sooner we get back to the basics and build our learning practices with humans in mind, the less we will have to worry about and the more we will have to look forward to in the years ahead.