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Learning to learn: A skill set for the 21st century student

Officially, any school's purpose is to prepare its students for becoming highly accomplished members of the workforce.

How do schools know how to do that, exactly?

How could we know whether or not schools reach their purpose successfully?

Before you jump in with all the reasonable arguments for this, hear me out.

The 21st century student and learning to learn

My job didn't exist 20 years ago, when I started school. Or maybe it did, but we didn't call it the same, only a handful of people had it, and most of the tools that I use everyday didn't exist yet. I'm sure that, 20 years from now, today's first graders will have jobs that don't exist at the moment. Fast Company collected a few jobs of the future that might have a plausible existence, but who knows how the world will look like in 2036?

I think that schools should rephrase their purpose statement and include "learning to learn" in it. In order to become highly accomplished members of the workforce, the 21st century student needs to learn how to learn. My school certainly helped me do that, and now I can handle this very awesome job of blog writing, which didn't exist when I was in first grade.

Learning doesn't stop when we finish school. In today's knowledge-based economy, employees are challenged by new situations at work every day, so they need to constantly learn and improve their skills in order to be successful.

Schools need to teach students how to learn, so they can put themselves on the trajectory towards becoming highly accomplished members of the workforce. But what set of skills belong to this learning to learn thing that will help modern students be serious candidates for the 21st century workplace? Read on to find out.

Problem solving skills

This almost sounds like a cliche, but really, work life comes with a whole load of problems, big and small, every single day. Even a small part of these can be enough for any first time employee to feel overwhelmed.

They need to be able to use their analytical thinking and creative thinking intermittently in order to first define the problem, then think about possible solutions, research them, come up with a plan, develop and implement the solution, evaluate the results and finally generate ideas on how to improve it next time.

Too many new employees learn this the hard way, because they didn't really have to do any of these while in school. One-time research papers or the fact that most of projects instructions are spoon-fed cannot thoroughly develop students' problem solving skills.

Communication skills

Don't get me wrong, not everyone must be a great public speaker, but a good comprehension of others' messages, as well as a good expression of thoughts is mandatory in any business circumstance. Reading and listening, writing and speaking must be adapted to various business situations.

First time employees make a lot of communication blunders, from typos in their resumes or sending emails without the necessary attachments (although they are not alone in this), to speaking over others during meetings or worse, not knowing how to ask the right questions when they need help at something.

Companies expect all their employees to know how to communicate well and are sometimes surprised at the number of young people who prove the contrary.

Collaboration skills

Theoretically, schools should be good at teaching students these skills. The education system sometimes is all about group learning activities, group assignments, and learning together.

Sometimes, this works well. Other times, group activities in school mean someone doing all the hard work, someone forgetting to participate at all, and all the others doing filler work. In the end, they all get a grade.

Teamwork in a company rarely resembles the situation pictured above. Employees really have to work together if they want their team to have results. And they always want that. Successful teams are the ones whose members invest all their brainpower in them. At the end of the month, they all get a paycheck.

Digital literacy skills

There's a lot of technology in the business world; still, some say it isn't enough.

Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, speakers, TVs, video projectors, recording cameras, online conference devices, presentation boards, printers, etc., etc.

Mail servers, web servers, content management systems, client relationship management systems, vendor management systems, employee databases, learning management systems, and so on, and so forth.

A personal email address and a few social media accounts may help a first time employee with figuring out how to use all of the above, but are surely not enough. They should be able to learn how to use all of them as fast as possible, and they could have a head start if they used some of these tech devices while in school. Unfortunately, not all schools can provide computers for each student or are BYOD-friendly. Hopefully, not yet.

Ethical skills

Last but not least, students should add ethics to their skill set of future successful workforce members:

Personal accountability. They should take responsibility for their actions and especially for the consequences of their actions — good or bad. They are expected to learn from a bad decision and never repeat it, not to blame others for their own mistakes, and not to steal others' accomplishments.

Fiscal accountability. Students should know how a project budget works, how to return tax, and how to search for information that helps them follow sustainable ideas. At the end of the day, businesses can't really afford many mistakes.

Empathy. Students should know how to "read" the nonverbal clues in other team members and resonate with them emotionally. An inappropriate joke, gossip, or any unethical attitude can send them on the outsiders' bench in no time. Of course, schools have to share the burden of teaching empathy to students with families, friends, society as a whole.

And now we've reached the last dimension of skills that employers look for when hiring new talent.

I know this marvellous skill set of the 21st century student has more than the five dimensions I touched in this post, so please, share your other examples in the comments section. I might make a part two.

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