“Preparation is a treacherous idea”

(John Dewey)

Companies need to prepare their people for a future where new and evolving skills and ways of working are a given and where an embrace of continuous learning is the key to relevancy in the workplace.

(McKinsey Quarterly)

Prepared for Tomorrow

  The fundamental educational goal listed in all school mission statements is preparing their student bodies for “tomorrow.” Tomorrow in these mission statements is defined as being “well prepared for career pathways in a modern and globalized world.” What follows in these same mission statements is a list of skills that parents assume will prepare their sons and daughters for careers in the twenty-first century. Although these skills on their face would appear as a valued competence in the occupational world of the twenty-first century, an examination of these skills from an employer’s perspective finds a wide discrepancy between schooled skills and real-world skills.

Schooled and Real-World Skills

  Critical thinking is an excellent example of the wide gap between how schools and employers define the concept. From a school perspective, educators would turn to Bloom’s taxonomy and cite the ability to analyze, to evaluate, to interpret, and to synthesize information. Within the context of a school classroom these abilities are applied to academic subjects where students are asked to interpret passages from literature; to evaluate the significance of an historical event; to write a term paper on an academic topic or question. While all of these assignments are legitimate applications of critical thought, none of these assignments are transferrable to what employers mean by critical thinking.

  While school definitions of critical thinking are information based, employer definitions of critical thinking are problem based. Employers value employees who are able to recognize problems, prioritize problems, gather evidence to solve problems, recognize many solutions to problems, and most importantly, to anticipate problems. School officials would respond to this charge by pointing to numerous examples in their curriculum where students are asked to solve problems. Employers would point out that school problems are contrived by teachers to align with content material and testing configurations and ignore the all-important contextual, logistical, and monetary variables that real world problem solving must factor into their decision making.

The World of Soft-Skills

  Putting aside the definitional problems with educational goals listed in school mission statements, the foundational problem with teaching future occupational skills is institutional schooling commitment to teaching hard academic skills as opposed to occupational soft skills. The chart below, shows the results of a survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries identifying the foundational skills that will help citizens thrive in the future of work. None of these soft skills are taught, much less appear, in our nation’s classrooms. The goals, vocabularies, and strategies of institutional schooling value and promote hard academic knowledge and skills. Any mention of “storytelling,” or “creativity and imagination,” or “resolving conflicts,” or “breaking orthodoxies,” would be greeted with confused stares and curt “thank you for your input.”


Problem Solving
Logical Reasoning
Understanding Biases
Determining Relevant Information
Translating knowledge into different context
Adopting a different perspective
Work-Plan Development
Time Management
Achievement orientation
Resolving conflicts
Asking the Right Questions
Synthesizing Messages
Active Listening
Computational & algorithmic thinking
Data literacy
Digital collaboration
Cyber security
Tech translation and enablement
Smart Systems
SOURCE:  Dondi, M., Klier, J., Panier, F., Schubert, J. Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work. McKinsey & Company

The World of Hard Skills

  Why do hard academic skills continue to dominate school curricula when employer surveys are asking for entirely different set of real-world soft skills?

  Hard academic skills are easy to measure & report

  The organizational structure and pedagogy governing the transmission of academic knowledge and skills lends itself to the multiple-choice test on Friday and letter grade report cards. The soft skills listed in the chart above require an assessment system that evaluate the quality, not quantity, of a student’s behavior. The assessment of a soft skill employs rubrics describing gradations of a performance that only experts or employers in a particular field would understand and appreciate. Parents look for an A or B or the dreaded F on a report card. They would be utterly confused receiving the following assessment of a public speaking assignment:” Eagerly initiates speech, utilizing appropriate attention getting devices. Easily asks questions and speaks spontaneously.”

  Hard academic skills are easy to teach

  Teaching hard academic skills lends itself to a transmission pedagogy composed of a teacher telling or showing definitions, facts, and procedures. The teaching of soft skills requires students to construct knowledge from problems that do not have clear goals, solutions paths, or expected solutions. Lesson plans for the teaching of hard academic skills follow a series of steps that begin with an objective and ending with independent practice. Lessons plans for teaching soft skills begin with a problem, a scenario, a story, and ends with some form of performance.

  Hard academic skills document institutional outcomes

  The primary goal of institutional schooling is to document for other institutions of learning the completion of prescribed sequences of knowledge and skills. Institutions accomplish this goal by reducing disciplinary knowledge into subjects—algebra, biology, U.S. History. Each subject, is then, assigned a unit or credit based on specified amount of time “seated” in a classroom (i.e. In the united states a “Carnegie Unit” equals a total of 120 hours in one subject). There are no subjects, or specified amounts of “seat time,” or letter grades, or credits.” There are knowledge and skills. All of these knowledge and skills, however, are contingent upon a problem or process that draws upon multiple disciplines to develop a tangible solution or performance. All the markings of institutional schooling—classrooms, periods, semesters, credits—become irrelevant in the soft skill world of problem solving, of active listening, of time management, of teamwork, of coaching, of collaboration, of determining relevant information, of implementing workable solutions to ill-defined societal problems.

Preparation is a treacherous idea

  The governing narrative of all school mission statements is preparing children and adolescence for successful careers in the occupational world. In order to achieve this goal, schools, lay out a sequence of courses in the K -12 schooling system that administrators and teachers believe will best achieve this goal.

  Putting aside the lack of emphasis on the other goals of schooling—civic, humanistic, personal development—the sequence of courses ostensibly designed to prepare student bodies for success in a twenty-first global economy, are in reality designed to prepare students for the next level of schooling. Yes, hard academic courses fit well into a school report card and transcript, but, would find little attention on a job resume.

  What employers are looking for in the candidates seated in front of them are soft real-world skills that will add value to their company. Among all of those soft real-world skills listed in the chart above, the one behavior that is the foundation for all of these real-world skills is the commitment to continuous learning.

  The generation in school now and all of those that follow will work in a world where occupations will be in constant flux. In this new world of work, there will be to no permanent careers, or training regimes, or diplomas, or established school curricula. They must be places, or rather, venues, where young people are acculturated into continuous learning environments—where their individual interests, talents, and abilities are honored and fostered.

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