Five skills that will last forever

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In contemporary education there is a great deal of talk about preparing students for the 21st century; in my own province, British Columbia, the phrase of the day is “21st century learning” which, presumably, is significantly different from, say, 16th century learning.  Much of this new learning involves getting students to use computers a lot, so much so that it is safe to assume that anytime a contemporary educator uses the term “educational technology” they mean computers.  Of course, the inherent problem with focusing a great deal of time and attention on teaching students computer skills is that these skills rapidly become obsolete.  Imagine a resume containing the following information:

COMPUTER SKILLS
I have extensive experience using the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot; I was also one of the first users of the TRS-80 Model II.  In addition, I am well versed in COBOL.  My current project is programming my SEIKO Data 2000. SEIKO

(If you don’t know what any of those are, feel free to look them up on Google; for now, at least, everyone uses Google.)

The point is that computer technology skills become outdated at a shockingly fast rate and schools that focus on these skills are, essentially, ensuring that their students will graduate high school with obsolete skills and little useful knowledge.

Let me suggest that there is a far greater purpose for schooling than merely teaching students how to use computers in all their various iterations (tablets, smartphones, etc.).  Below is a list of five skills that I believe every student needs to not only survive and function, but to thrive and prosper in the future.  These skills will be relevant for the remainder of the 21st century, and for many centuries to come.  They are recession-proof and obsolescence-proof.

1. The ability to have a conversation.
Teenagers are highly skilled users of text messaging and just about any simple smartphone app (their ability to use sophisticated computers programs is highly overrated, however).  But one thing they can’t do well anymore is have a sustained, face-to-face conversation involving eye contact and continuous attention on the person they are conversing with.  Their ability to have a telephone conversation with proper tone, projection, and social graces (including those quaint notions of saying “please” and “thank-you”) is also seriously lacking.

2. The ability to identify propaganda.
Some of my students recently asked me if I was planning to see the movie JOBS, the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher.  I replied that I wasn’t particularly interested, since based on the trailers, the film seems to be essentially two hours of Apple propaganda. (It’s almost comical how the trailer presents Jobs as a near-messianic figure).  My students all knew what propaganda was but had no idea why I would consider this movie to be an example of it.  In their view of things, “propaganda” meant Stalinist posters in North Korea.  As propaganda, both political and corporate, becomes ever more sophisticated and integrated into a wide range of media, teenagers have become more and more unaware of it.

3. The ability to read a text for a sustained period of time.
In the past, I have had students in English 12 (an academic, university-preparation course) who quite literally cannot read a novel.  They are, by their own admission, simply unable to concentrate on text for more than a paragraph before their attention wanders.  Ergo, when assigned a 300-page novel in English 12, they look for online summaries which condense the book into a few mouse clicks worth of text.  Yet the libraries of the world’s universities, with their millions of pages of dense text, are not going anywhere.  Even if sustained reading is falling out of fashion, *someone* is still able to read those thousands of pages of medical, historical, and legal books.  Those people will continue to occupy an ever-shrinking place at the top of the social and economic pyramid while the rest of us consider a 140-character Twitter message the perfect length of text.

4. The ability to concentrate on a single task for a sustained period of time.
Multi-tasking, which digital technology encourages by its very structure, has been of tremendous harm to teenagers’ ability to concentrate on one thing with laser-like focus for a significant, uninterrupted period of time.  Researcher Clifford Nass (who, tragically, died recently of a heart attack at age 55) has done important research on the “chronically distracted” state of today’s youth.  Here’s a great sample of his findings on multitasking and how it affects children:

5. The ability to conduct reliable research, both on and off line.
Not long ago I read an article by a techno-utopian educator who waxed eloquently about the incredible benefit of sustained internet use among teenagers.  She described teenagers as “genius data retrievers highly skilled at finding and manipulating information.”  Uh, sure.  Not surprisingly, this educator is an academic who doesn’t teach actual teenagers.  The reality is somewhat disappointing for those who think of teenagers as computer wizards; teenagers are indeed highly skilled at finding information online.  They are, however, terrible at judging the reliability or quality of that information; most of the time they aren’t even aware of the source of what they have found (unless you consider “the internet” to be a meaningful source).  Let me illustrate this with a fascinating example from a class I taught two years ago.

In my Psychology 12 class we read an essay on alternative medicine and the placebo effect, the central thesis being that most alternative medicine has virtually no empirically proven benefits above and beyond the placebo effect (the tendency of the body to respond to a substance because of the individual’s belief in that substance, even if the substance itself has no healing properties).  One example we talked about is acupuncture, which has been used (its advocates are quick to tell us) for “thousands of years” in eastern cultures, yet which has little, if any, empirical evidence backing up its healing claims.  I didn’t think much about it at the time, but just mentioned acupuncture in passing.
acupuncture-needlesWell, one of my students, to his credit, took an interest in this question and came to class the next day with a stack of about thirty pages he had printed off at home.  The following dialogue ensued:

STUDENT: Mr. Rauser, you know how you said yesterday that acupuncture doesn’t work?
ME: Uh, I didn’t actually say that at all.  What I said was that there is virtually no empirical evidence in controlled scientific studies that it works, and that its healing properties are generally believed to be due to the placebo effect.
STUDENT: Yeah, well, I was on this website and they were saying that acupuncture has been proven in lots of studies.  They even have a whole list of the studies right there on their website.
ME: What website was this?
STUDENT: I’m not sure.  I think it’s, umm (checked papers), oh yeah, here it is.  [He read out the website, which I won’t repeat here.  Suffice it to say that the name of the website was somewhat suspect.  It was something like “www.
acupuncturecanreallchangeyourlife.com”]
ME: That doesn’t sound like a scientifically reliable website.  It sounds like a promotional website, probably advertising the benefits of acupuncture to encourage people to try it out.
STUDENT: It isn’t, though, because they say on the website that they aren’t selling anything.
ME: Is it possible that they aren’t being truthful?
STUDENT: [seeming genuinely confused] Well, why wouldn’t they be truthful?

To make a long story short, it turned out that the website was an example of what is sometimes called “stealth marketing”.  It was a website that presented itself as an “objective, unbiased” (its words) assessment of acupuncture, but it was actually a website run by an acupuncture clinic in California.  Of the studies cited on the website, not a single one had been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

This is typical of teenagers today; they are indeed skilled at finding “stuff” on the internet, but they tend to lack the critical capacity to differentiate facts from opinions, and reliable information from falsehood and propaganda.

And what about finding reliable information off-line? Say, in an actual library with actual books printed on actual paper? University libraries tend to be massive places with hundreds of thousands of books and periodicals.  How well can a typical Canadian high school graduate navigate these places?

The McLennan library building at McGill University.  Contrary to popular belief, these buildings--and the hundreds of thousands of books they contain--aren't going anywhere.

The McLennan library building at McGill University. Contrary to popular belief, these buildings–and the hundreds of thousands of books they contain–aren’t going anywhere.

In the end, I suspect that, regardless of what they learn (or don’t learn) in high school, there will always be a small, elite group of students who thrive and prosper because of their own innate abilities, aptitudes, and motivations.  But no educator should be satisfied with this; our goal should be to ensure that as many students thrive as possible.  The five skills described above are a good place to start.

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