Developing Those 21st Century Work Skills

So much of our society’s concern and discussion about “reforming” or “transforming” our education system is focused on giving our youth the skills to participate successfully in the 21st Century workforce so our country can successfully compete in the world economy. A lot of alternative educators might make a good argument against this kind of grand social engineering, and say that an education system in a democracy like ours should instead be focused on creating an enriched environment for learning. We should then rely on the innate learning drive in our youth and the internal compasses of them and their families, to chart a course to best realize their unique skills.

But accepting for now that a “world class education” (as President Obama and others refer to it) is at least one of several legit goals, what does that really mean? In particular, what are the “skill sets” that our kids need to develop to contribute their best in our free enterprise system? And is the current highly standardized mostly one-size-fits-all education system, endlessly debated and tweaked, and the source of much hand-wringing, really our best wisdom on how to achieve that goal?

My thoughts on this are based on what our business leaders and highly successful entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, etc.) say and on my own work experience and that of my kids’, and what in each of our learning paths has contributed to our success (to the extent we have had success) in the economy. It seems that many of the skills I use in my work I learned outside of school (sometimes during my high school years at the expense of my schoolwork), while others were nurtured by work in the classroom. My kids on the other hand, one leaving school in the middle of 8th grade and the other at the end of 9th, and having difficult school experiences before that have learned maybe most of their work skills, other than the basic ability to read perhaps, outside of a classroom.

In most of the information technology systems and business analysis work I have done over the past twenty years, it is the combination of analytic, writing, creative, people, and facilitative (rather than directive) leadership skills that generally allow me to make a unique contribution to the projects I’ve been involved in. School assignments in particular did force me to write, and by age 23 most (though not all) of my writing had been done in a school context.

It is interesting, in contrast, that my kids really developed and honed their writing skills outside of school in their online role-playing game communities. Our daughter Emma in particular was involved in a long-active forum where participants wrote extensive posts to each other in the voice of the characters they had developed within the role-playing game. Eric was involved in several teams (along with his sister at times) in several teams that developed role-playing game worlds, with Eric writing the background world history and story scenario from which the game play proceeded.

Some of my analytic skills in functional decomposition draw from a systems analysis class I took getting my second college degree in computer science, and data analysis skills draw from my high school math number theory and college Boolean logic classes. But more of those systems analysis skills came out of my non-school experience playing and even developing complicated historical and sports simulation games and developing grassroots phone and street action campaigns for the National Organization for Women.

When I think of my creative skills (and some basic system skills), I think most of the endless hours of play in my youth (often collaborating with my brother Peter) with my plastic soldiers and dinosaurs, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, wooden trains, etc, down in the basement of my family’s home. Years later, with my brother, developing fantasy sports leagues and dramatic championship series. Then also my years of designing lights and sets, adapting a novel (Lord of the Flies) for the stage, and collaborating with my youthful theater comrades on conceiving, designing and mounting this and other productions.

Both my kids had their version of my basement creative play experience, in a smaller venue (the living room or extra bedroom of our small house), with all sorts of good imagination play toys including figures, Legos, and again those wooden trains. Growing up in the information age, they had the tremendous additional nearly endless virtual venue of their Internet multi-player online gaming environment. One game Eric was into for a while took place in an entire virtual galaxy, with hundreds of populated worlds. Ah the flights of fantasy I could have had with that play environment (though there were few limits to my mind in my basement!)

I feel I developed most of my advanced people skills outside of the school environment, where there was no supervising adult managing the communication flow, where we kids had to communicate, choose pick-up-game team, adjudicate game-rules disputes, and otherwise fend for ourselves.

For my kids some were developed again online, participating in governance bodies and design teams associated with their role-playing game worlds. They both also had the wonderful Unitarian-Universalist high school youth community (YRUU) to develop their leadership and other people skills, as well as logistical skills (organizing youth conferences), some of which I am yet to develop.

So now our daughter Emma at age 19, with only a 9th grade formal education, is a confident shift manager (one or two days a week) at her bakery restaurant, with three or four other team members (most older than her) working under her direction. She is also a budding science fiction and fantasy writer, nurtured by her years of online role-playing games.

Our son Eric, age 23, collaborated with three partners to start a business last year, “Techies”, repairing Apple computers and setting up and maintaining video editing workstations for entertainment production companies. It is still struggling mightily to survive in our current terrible economy exacerbated by the (finally) recently settled actors’ strike which affected their entertainment industry clients. Eric is the operations person, with the advanced people and facilitative skills to keep his partners efforts in sync, as well as being chiefly responsible for finances, logistics, personnel and procedures.

Again, my kids do not have the benefit of a college education or even a high school degree and all the benefits that efforts to those milestones can bring you. But they both are very entrepreneurial, creative, and think on their feet, and have developed tremendous self-confidence and self-esteem that they bring to everything they do. These are qualities in particular that I think their “unschooling” experience in their older youth (after leaving school) tends to foster.

And finally… I guess I’m guilty of being a proud parent bragging a bit too much about his kids… forgive me!

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