'Basic Skills' or 'Soft Skills:' What Should Be Taught and Tested?

Tom Friedman's New York Times column on February 23 "How to Get a Job at Google" is a wake-up call for students in or graduates of America's elite colleges and universities. And, from my humble perspective, it's a wake-up call for Pre-K-to-high school students, teachers, and parents too. Why? Because a universal assessment of what it will take to succeed in any workplace applies to all job-seekers of this generation, and Friedman's column offers particular encouragement to those who fall short of the top grades or who attend less highly ranked colleges, or none at all.

Gary Burnison, CEO Korn/Ferry International, posted a blog response to Friedman on LinkedIn on March 13 highlighting "this is how to get a job anywhere." (Graphic: Max Griboedov / shutterstock)

Is creative brain power more valuable than formal education? Google's Brin, Page, and Schmidt seem to belong to a school of thought that is quite familiar to me and my MIT Media Lab's heritage led by Papert, Minsky, Negroponte, and now Ito, and even Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge;" "learning-by-making rules;" and "learning to learn is more important than memorizing information."

Don't get me or Friedman or Media Lab folks or Google's hiring practices wrong: To the extent that grades reflect certain expertise in the skills today's organizations and companies require, some test scores are still valid. Grades indicate either natural talent or the ability to apply oneself to learning certain skills that may not come naturally, and playing the game of school -- all are desirable qualities in one way or another.

Mastery of the so called 'basic skills' (on which America's children are currently being tested) are assumed in today's workplace, whether taught in K12, college, or learned on the job later in order to keep up. However, I believe that for any job, that is even vaguely technical, in all fields -- business, health, government, education, entertainment -- that will also mean new scores on "new knowledge and skills," including inventive thinking, digital literacy, fluency in digital participation, digital communication, coding and making digital stuff. And that's where I'm heading with this essay.

Friedman clearly notes how Googlers have found that "the old basic skills are not enough," the more important advantage is ability or capacity to "learn above" the basic skills. That means, the ability to ask big questions, see connections, draw parallels and distinctions, think originally and follow leads, and do it objectively, creatively and collaboratively. The reason this is absolutely essential to Google, and to all organizations that are shaping the new economy, is that innovation and learning to learn new-stuff-on-the-fly are key to their success, and innovation demands perceiving what was not there before and doing whatever you can to learn it.

That is why I think Google's articulation of the 'soft skills' of leadership, innovation, humility, teamwork, and ownership is so right-on. Soft they may be, but these skills constitute a combination that is essential to the core work of innovation, which rarely happens in instantaneous individual breakthroughs but rather evolves through collaborative group endeavors in which personal adaptability is a necessity.

From my own experience working in R&D and tech organizations in academia and industry, and being involved in intense futuristic R&D efforts and entrepreneurship over the past three decades, I know that the difficult part is learning how to work in teams in which you may find yourself playing a contributor role one day, a leadership role the next day, and find you have no role at all on yet another day. Knowing when and how to step forward, when to question, when and how to step back, and when and how to exercise influence and teach or direct are the key skills to what Google's Senior VP of Operations, Laszlo Bock, calls "emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership."

This absolutely requires humility, for successful innovation can only be driven by learning, imagination, and by data, never by ego. Therefore, it is extremely important to create learning environments where learners get to stimulate their brains, through brainstorming, thinking imaginatively, researching big questions and innovative ideas that result in new learning processes and learning outcomes (e.g., new data, problem visualization, long-term projects, new products, original digital artifacts that represent new thinking).

In fact, our Globaloria results from the past seven years in America's schools demonstrate that successful ideas come not so much from students with the highest grades or test scores, but rather from "average" or "below" kids. They don't know what they don't know, and they are not afraid to put their thinking and creative ideas "out there" for others (in the class and on the learning network) to respond to and collaborate on.

2014-03-20-IditHuffpostImage.png (Photo: Globaloria Students / Globaloria Flickr).

Of course, innovation (at all levels of expertise) also has a high failure rate, so in addition to humility, you need a relentless belief that you can get stuff to work, that you can build something with your ideas (that they do not remain ideas), and you need to take ownership of that belief so it becomes self-motivating.

So, yes, Google has got this right and Tom Friedman too. But the attributes we need to cultivate in youth these days so they can grow into getting a job at Google, or any job in the coming economy (NYC School System, Uber, Cisco, Twitter, Electronic Arts, Ford Foundation, Mount Sinai Hospital, NASA, GAP, the Obama administration, or their newly-created start-up), are attributes that in no way belong exclusively to the elite and can be achieved by everyone, if we give them engaging opportunities, starting young.

And in this spirit, here's a tale from the field:

Like many principals in our network, Mr. Kamar Samuels, Principal of the Bronx Writing Academy in NYC, has been recently inspired by the 'soft skills' we've been explaining and teaching his Globaloria students this year, 283 of them in 6-7-8 grades. So much so, that he recently called my team to a meeting to talk about "expanding into a school-wide Globaloria strategy of a 3-year plan to offer it to every teacher and every student in BWA middle school." Mr. Samuels says he sees it as "a way to transform learning and thinking across my school in everything we do and teach." He told us he is super motivated for every teacher and every student to do Globaloria, not just for learning computer science and engineering skills, but also to cultivate these special 'soft skills' he have seen emerging among his students, sensing that doing it school-wide can make it even more impactful for the culture he is building (and yes, he also cares about test scores, being part of the NYC public school system, but seem to select another route to get there--by engaging his students in STEM & Computational Inventiveness and thinking about learning in a new way).

Here's a video clip from EACPA, a 5-year-old charter school in East Austin, where education leaders Dr. Sanchez and Dr. Gonzales believe just the same: that these fuzzy 'soft skills' Friedman is talking about are the ones they want each and every student in their schools to experience every day and hone for life.

Unfortunately, our intuition says this is the way forward, but many in our society tell us we still have a long way to go. It's not yet intuitive that inventing and making stuff such as designing, coding and building video games can address these specific 'soft skills' -- though not implausible either. As important as these 'soft skills' are, the real breakthroughs will be in identifying their specific epistemology (the process in which they're acquired) and their impacts on livelihood and success once acquired.

I work with administrators and leaders in many communities across the nation who are making me realize a tipping point. Still, understanding methods for teaching these soft skills requires a society's serious shift in mindset. Some of us have been at it for three decades prior to Friedman's great op-ed, doing R&D, publishing, winning awards for papers, books and learning products. The "Google's hiring principles" are getting us somewhat closer to being embraced by mainstream school administrators to include these practices as part of their core curriculum as well as in state/national standards. No doubt ed-tech investing AND testing reform must follow.