​What Kids Need to Succeed: Thinking Beyond What Techies Tell Us

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

​What Kids Need to Succeed: Thinking Beyond What Techies Tell Us

By Cindi Dunford     Jul 4, 2017

​What Kids Need to Succeed: Thinking Beyond What Techies Tell Us

As someone who worked in education, moved into edtech, then returned back to the classroom, I was interested to hear Mary Jo Madda’s recent podcast on what Google, Twitter, and Pinterest think kids need to succeed. The advice these tech employees share, like encouraging growth mindset and building strong writing skills, are not wrong. On the contrary, these are skills students (and adults) need in order to lead successful careers and lives. It is problematic, however, that when asking what skills students need, we seek the perspective of those whose focus is on technology and the forces that drive it, with the assumption that they must know better than educators simply because they are working in the business world.

In my experience working both in education technology and as an educator, the motivator behind technology companies is not learning. It’s not educators or students or research. It’s the bottom line—to make a profit. This makes sense, as a company must be viable in order to reach its consumers, but this focus can drive decisions away from the best interests of those they’re trying to reach.

In contrast to tech companies, the driving force in education is learning. And effective educators successfully empower students to learn with or without technology. Effective teachers also already “draw upon what students are excited and interested to learn about,” and work to balance both the hard and soft skills that tech employees say we need to work on.

We focus on student engagement, public speaking, clear writing, growth mindset, critical thinking, problem solving, and resiliency. We also focus on mindfulness, culturally responsive content, academic state standards, closing the achievement gap, and civic literacy. Then, in our spare time, we learn dozens of technology platforms in order to help engage our students in learning and support our best instructional practices.

Students do need support learning these kinds of skills. But perhaps more importantly, students also need the ability to distinguish between real and fake content in media, and how to recognize bias. They need to learn how to open a device and stay focused on the task at hand, even though they may want to indulge in their own personal interests instead. They need the ability to understand the world, both as it is today and as it was, so that history doesn’t repeat itself. They need the ability to work alone and together, to think out of the box, and to think without a technical one.

Students also need skills like empathy and selflessness. They need an understanding of the difference between individualism and the public good, and the need for a balance between the two. They need to understand ethics, how to develop them, and how to stand up for them. Although parents and guardians are primary in this type of learning, schools come in a close second. (Or at least they used to before A Nation at Risk propelled education toward a corporate-style culture driven by external—and often high-stakes—accountability targets and indicators.)

Increasingly, schools are perceived as places where students come as consumersto prepare themselves to be successful in their own, narrow worlds. People have forgotten that schools are also places where students come as citizens to prepare themselves to contribute to society in ways that go beyond “what’s in it for me?” Both avenues of learning require technology, but neither is wholly dependent on it.

Our society today is so filled with tools and the marketing that unceasingly promotes them, that it sometimes fails to recognize technology alone cannot save the planet—people must. In the same vein, there are many outside of education—especially in the world of technology—who feel they have the solutions to the problems found within it.

The advice presented in Madda’s podcast represents these kinds of solutions. Tech workers fail to recognize that just as technology will not save the planet, it also will not prepare students with all of the skills they need to succeed. Educators will.

Cindi Dunford is an educator, writer, and educational researcher.

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