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Students Need Things We Don't Teach

The best way to guide students toward finding meaningful work is to develop their strengths and to help them understand how they learn.
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In December of 2006, The New Commission on the Skills of the American Work Force issued a challenge to the United States educational system in their publication "Tough Choices or Tough Times (TCTT)." Among other things, this report calls for a radical change in our educational system in order to prepare our citizens to compete in the global economy. The report is clear in outlining the qualities that will be needed to succeed in the work force of the future.

Foremost, the report cites the abilities to be creative and innovative. Because creative, "out of the box" solutions come from synthesizing and combining disparate ideas, creative teams will be necessary in every field in the workplace of the future. These teams will need to assemble, dis-assemble and re-assemble in a short period of time, requiring each person to be adaptable, cooperative and innovative. The TCTT Report describes the work place of the future as one where workers will be "constantly organizing and reorganizing in a never-ending array of teams, like a turning kaleidoscope, some of whose members are regular employees of the firm and many who are brought in from the four corners of the world for particular projects."

What role should schools play in nurturing these team-oriented qualities in their students? A good team member is one who deliberately volunteers his strengths to the team most of the time. It follows that students must leave school with a self-assured understanding of their strengths and how they can bring these strengths to work in their professional and personal lives. People who experience repeated success will be the ones who know their strengths and creatively bring those strengths to the teams they join.

The best way to guide students toward finding meaningful work is to develop their strengths and to help them understand how they learn. If schools expect to develop innovative thinkers who can consistently perform in a highly fluid, furiously paced future, it is imperative that they focus on helping students identify, and practice their areas of strength before they join the workforce.

Tough Choices or Tough Times reports, "Those who are comfortable working in artistic, investigative, highly social, or entrepreneurial environments are more likely to succeed... Schools will have to learn how to simulate these environments in many ways if our students are able to develop the abilities that will be so important to them."

Increasingly, success in the workplace depends on performance criteria that are more mental and less physical than they used to be. For example, a journalist may be required to come up with 10 new ideas for stories, software developers need to arrive at four new concepts for developing interfaces, teams are charged with creating plans to troubleshoot problems. This shift applies across the board in businesses. In the past, an auto mechanic could learn the job by observing the behavior of other people at work. Today, cars run on computers and learning through observation is not as useful as technical training. In an age when most jobs require intuitive decision-making, where more mental activities replace physical ones, traditional instruction and assessment is ineffective (i.e. the teacher demonstrates how to do something and the student who repeats the performance best receives a high grade).

In the 21st century workplace, a new premium is placed on creative problem solving, teamwork and collaboration. Our schools will "bridge" students into the workforce when they begin to focus on developing student strengths and teach students how to bring those strengths to the teams they work on.

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