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Putting it all together

As any tired Monday-morning manager could tell you, solving a challenging new problem at work is tough. It’s not enough to know how to apply your knowledge to a real-world situation (practical literacy). Getting things done at work requires other thinking skills such as communication and creativity, along with non-cognitive skills such as confidence and persistence. Someone who has all of these skills is said to possess “broader competencies.” Someone who has all of these skills is poised for success.

Surveys of employers bear this out. In a 2006 study, the Conference Board found that employers still see basic skills like reading comprehension as fundamental to success on the job. But broader competencies are even more critical, they say, and are expected to increase in importance in the near future. Four of these “super skills” topped the list:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Applying information technology
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation

We’ll look at three of these – critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity -- in depth, as well as at self-sufficiency, a necessary attitude for success.

Critical thinking and problem solving. Although employers rank this as the number one competency they believe will become more important for new workers, 70 percent of them told the Conference Board that high school students are deficient in this area. (In a separate study, however, only 45 percent of superintendents agreed.)

The first question, of course, is whether it’s possible to teach students “how to think.” Beyond broad generalizations, what does that even mean? One attempt to assess critical thinking and problem solving came in a 2003 test conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That test focused on three kinds of thinking tasks:

  • Making decisions under constraints
  • Evaluating and designing systems to handle specific situations
  • Trouble-shooting when things go wrong

The OECD test illustrates how the kind of problem-solving called for in real life is very different from the traditional skills taught in the classroom. At one point cognitive scientists thought reasoning and problem solving must come down to some set of general-purpose strategies or steps that, once learned, could be applied to any situation. Programs designed to teach abstract thinking skills sprang up around this belief, and many of those are still in use today.

But it turns out that assumption was mistaken. Experiments showed that “experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter.” This “expert thinking,” which is not necessarily transferrable from one situation to others, means that experts know enough to understand the big, underlying ideas that pull together all the facts about a subject. This breadth and depth of knowledge helps them recognize patterns and think about their own thinking.

Schools, Levy and Murnane conclude, should not try to substitute generic “thinking strategies” for the traditional academic subjects, which help students acquire the knowledge they need to become expert thinkers.

Communication and collaboration. With the expansion of the information-service sector of the economy and the flattening of organizational hierarchies, interpersonal competencies such as oral communication, written communication, and the ability to collaborate, are becoming more and more important to employers.

Yet as important as these interpersonal skills are, employers say job seekers are falling short – especially in written communication. Eight out of 10 employers told the Conference Board that high school graduates are deficient in this important skill, a clear signal to schools.

As for collaboration, an OECD project described these skills as necessary for interacting effectively with others:

  • The ability to relate well to others
  • The ability to cooperate
  • The ability to manage and resolve conflicts

Employers feel far fewer graduates are deficient in these skills than they do in oral and written communication. Schools looking to develop leadership and teamwork could encourage participation in extracurricular activities. These qualities have elsewhere been shown to increase if a student simply participates in (not necessarily leads) extracurricular activities.

Creativity. Globalization requires creativity. With more companies offering similar, high-skilled workforces, the only reason the U.S. can maintain its competitive edge is creativity. “The crucial new factor, the one that alone can justify higher wages, is…creativity and innovation,” the new Skills Commission concluded.

But can you even define creativity, let alone teach it? Surprisingly, the research that has been done on creativity contradicts much of the received knowledge about it.

Creativity, the Skills Commission concluded, requires deep knowledge of one area and broad knowledge of many others—plus the ability to see patterns and combine different elements in new ways. It thrives best among people who are “allowed to fail many times in order to succeed only once.” Giving students the foundational knowledge needed to be creative (and the room to fail) is certainly something schools can do.

Self-sufficiency. Many attempts to define “21st century skills” also list a range of what are often called “intrapersonal competencies” that come down to being able to take responsibility for one’s own future and acting in self-directed, self- sufficient ways. Who could argue that such skills are important? But educators might reasonably object that making them responsible for things like students’ confidence and sense of personal accountability is taking things too far. Certainly there has been little research about what teachers can actually do to improve such competencies.

However, some recent research suggests it might be possible to address some intrapersonal competencies in the context of math classes. For instance, middle school students’ math grades improved after an intervention to change their beliefs about the role of innate ability (something they cannot control) and effort (something they can control) in learning math. Such an approach would support schools’ basic academic mission.


This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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