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What Does 'Smart' Mean Today?

The skills needed to get ahead in the 21st century are changing.

I recently upgraded to a smartphone and I cannot put the thing down. It is a world of information and entertainment at my fingertips. My classroom is "smart," with interactive white boards making every lesson as stimulating and fast-paced as a video game. My classroom also has student response systems that allow students to text in ideas and answer multiple-choice questions from their desks, just like in a game show. My husband’s landscaping company installs "smart" irrigation timers that read soil moisture levels and water accordingly. 

All around us, things are getting smarter. Some scientists even predict that in 2045, just 34 years from now, computers will be smarter than humans. So what does this new bombardment of "smarts" look like in our children? What does it mean to be smart these days?

The answer is not simple. Of course, politically minded bureaucracies would like "smart" to be as easy to assess as administering annual comprehensive multiple-choice tests (can you say No Child Left Behind?). But businesses and corporations have a much different sense of what smart means. As we prepare our children for the ever-evolving, globally competitive marketplace of the 21st century, it is essential that we address what we are teaching our children in relation to the needs of the economy that they will enter as adults. In plain English: Are our kids learning the skills that they will need to be competitive in the global job market?

Many have asked this question. Author Daniel Pink offers a simple and compelling argument that skills that were considered "smart" in  centuries past, namely left-brained skills such as being analytical and objective, are not as meaningful in the globalized world of today. He argues in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future that while these left-brained skills are important, right-brained skills will be even more important in the 21st century for our children to be successful in our society and our economy. He focuses on six newly important right-brained skills as the keys to 21st-century success: play, story, design, meaning, empathy and symphony, or the ability to see the big picture and synthesize information. 

Another group that has taken measures to address the question of what skills our children will need in the 21st century marketplace is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a collaborative organization of educators and corporations promoting the needed skills in the classrooms. In the 2010 American Management Association (AMA) Critical Skills Survey, executives voiced their need of "more skilled workers" in the 21st century. They identified several skills that are now referred to loosely as the three R's and the four C's. 

The three R's are competency in reading, writing and arithmetic, with an expanded emphasis on areas not typically focused on in schools, such as global awareness, financial and environmental literacy and health and wellness awareness. The four C's include critical thinking and problem solving, communication, creativity and innovation, collaboration, information and media literacy, and contextual learning skills. 

Are our schools teaching these skills? I am not alone in arguing that overall, schools are not meeting these demands. In a world of high-stakes testing and a political environment intent on paying teachers according to testing outcomes, most teachers are certainly not making great headway toward focusing on content and skills that are not directly assessed. The old "factory" model of school depends on left-brained skills for instruction and as measures of success. This creates a huge disconnect between what our children need to succeed in the economy and on what teachers are being forced to emphasize.

To be sure, I know many great teachers who excel in incorporating right-brained and 21st century skills into their instruction, and advanced technologies in the classrooms are making these skills easier to embed in everyday lessons.

As great educational theorists such as Sir Ken Robinson suggest, however, it will take a dynamic cultural shift for the educational system at large to change entirely. But our kids need these skills now. 

What can you do at home?

  • Play. Encourage creative, unstructured play with your children, for your children, and even for yourself. Have a family board game night. Tell jokes and laugh often together. Lose the seriousness whenever possible. My best friend and I were great study partners growing up because we knew the power of laughter in building memories. We spent many a study session making up silly ways to memorize mundane facts. This playfulness creates the emotional component necessary in forming meaningful memories. With my students, laughter and silliness are keys to making learning fun and meaningful. Unicorns Are Real is an excellent book for parents full of suggestions of right-brained activities and methods for learning that will help boost right-brained thought and also increase overall learning by teaching children to think and process with their whole brain.    
  • Story. Tell stories about your day, your past and your dreams for the future. Listen to your child's stories, make-believe or otherwise, and encourage descriptive details and elaborate plots. Encourage creative writing and poetry through a journal or a blog and push your child to take pride in his or her efforts by sharing those writings with others. Collaboration is a key skill as well, so invent stories together, and always emphasize revision and editing with writing. As I tell my students, a writer is never finished at a first draft and always seeks the input of peers to make the story better. Story helps build communication, creativity, innovation and collaboration, several of the four C's.
  • Meaning. It is one thing to learn facts, but to understand the why behind them, to apply them to real-life situations, and to take the purpose of learning to heart is what leads to big ideas and a spiritual connection with the world around you. Talk often with your children about what the big picture is and how one thing connects to another in their own life, in the world, in books they read or movies and shows they watch. Our brains learn by connecting new information to information we already know. Making meaning out of new information helps make the connections responsible for our memories. Focusing on meaning will also build critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Empathy. Understanding people's feelings, where they are coming from, and why they respond to the world the way that they do is a skill that can be taught early. Practice walking in others' shoes. When conflict arises, discuss with your child what the other party might have been feeling at that time or why he or she might have responded in that way. Volunteer in the community with people less fortunate to encourage a sense of compassion. Discuss world events to develop some of the 3 R's as well, such as global awareness; financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; health and wellness awareness; and environmental literacy. 
  • Symphony. This is the ability to see the big picture, to make connections between seemingly unrelated things, and to innovate. This is the skill entrepreneurs are made of. Play games in which, given three random objects, your child has to come up with a connection between or use for all three. Encourage inventiveness and provide opportunities for "out-of-the-box" solutions to be the best way to go.
  • Design. Function is no longer enough. We are a society driven by the way things look. We enter a store and have hundreds of choices of where to spend our money, and usually, we choose for design if all else is equal. Video games, iPods and smartphones all rely on design to sell. Encourage artwork, especially that which relies on the right side of the brain. Help your child design a website. Many safe options exist that provide templates and privacy features. Try WordPress for one. Computer programs like PowerPoint and Paint also allow children to design and present what they create. While shopping, discuss how various products differ in design and why someone might choose one product over another. Question your own consumer choices as well, to build consumer consciousness! Information and media literacy are important 21st century skills.

I think often about the lives my grandparents led. Born in the 1920s, they and their parents experienced the transition from horse and buggy to motor cars, from newspaper and "snail" mail to Internet and mobile phones, from radio to HD TV.

In my own life, I remember relying on pay phones to call Mom for rides, and how cool I felt when I got my first pager. In fact, it wasn't until my senior year in college that I received my first email address! Just 10 years later, I carry a computer in my purse that can access the world and make phone calls. It is mind-boggling to predict what the next 10—no, five—years will bring us. 

Our children are already more equipped than we ever will be, as they are growing up with these new technologies, but it is our responsibility to make sure that our outdated sense of what education should be does not hold them back. As Bill Cosby said, "I used to be 'with it,' but then they changed what 'it' was."  What is considered "smart" is an evolving measure. We owe it to our children to keep up with the changes through which we are all living.

More ideas to come on my website, www.schoolsurvivalist.com.

Follow me on Twitter: schoolsurvivali

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