Because computers can supply facts, rote learning has become redundant. Sharon Ní Chonchúir talks to two US experts about teaching children six essential soft skills needed for success
HOW do you raise children to become successful adults who have fulfilling careers and happy lives?
This is the question parents ask themselves from the moment their babies are born and it’s one that a new book claims to answer.
Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, is written by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Roberta Golinkoff, a professor at the University of Delaware.
The academics look at a world in which automation is increasingly threatening human jobs and in which technology is changing the way we communicate. They identify the skills that will be needed to thrive in the world of tomorrow.
“Our own children experienced a certain set of cultural circumstances and lived in a certain time,” says Hirsh-Pasek.
“Our grandchildren have inherited a whole new world, full of media and tablets and cell phones, that did not exist 15 years ago.”
Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff recognise that theirs are just two voices in a world that offers a head-spinning amount of parenting advice. But as experts in the psychology of learning, their arguments are based on what is known about how children learn and, to this new mum, at least, they make sense.
Hirsh-Pasek’s and Golinkoff’s first argument is that we must change how we look at success.
We are mistaken in our assumption that the first step to success is filling children’s heads with facts. This may have been true in the past, but it’s not true in the world of Google and online encyclopaedias.
“In today’s world, facts are literally at our fingertips,” says Golinkoff.
“The real issue confronting the modern child is how we sort through, prioritise, and make use of all the information that is coming at us on a daily basis. These are thinking skills that cannot be taught through memorisation.”
Instead of training children to spit out facts, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff think we should leave that to the computers. They are better at it than we could ever be. As parents and educators, we should focus on teaching children soft skills and Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff highlight six, which they call the six ‘Cs’ of parenting.
These are collaboration, communication, the mastery of content (their word for information or facts), critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.
“We are living in a world that is more connected than ever and technological change is everywhere,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “Robots will soon be telling us what to do. Only people who are creative and collaborative will be able to go beyond what a well-designed robot could achieve.”
The authors identify countries that have changed their educational systems to meet these challenges. One is Finland, where, in 1991, only 5% of workers were involved in research and development. This had risen to 20% by 2003 and the country had also risen to the top of the global competitiveness index.
It is estimated that today’s graduates will hold 10 jobs in their lifetimes and that eight of those have yet to be invented, so Finland is training its children to thrive in that future.
Finland achieved this by making school days shorter and by not giving any homework or tests to children under the age of eight. In essence, say, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, the Finnish education system has incorporated the 6Cs into the classroom.
They devote a chapter to each of the 6Cs. They describe them in detail, breaking them down into four levels to allow parents to assess how strong their children are in each skill and then suggesting how parents can foster these skills, inside and outside of the classroom.
Take collaboration. The authors identify it as the soft skill that is the basis of how we interact with others. They quote Casey Stengel, the former manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who said: “getting good players is easy. Getting them to play together is the hard part”.
Collaboration involves taking turns, developing the self-control required to listen, and learning how to play a role in a team.
Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff suggest that we can encourage these traits in our children by having them wait for their turn when playing board games, and other activities, and rewarding them with praise when they do so successfully.
They also recommend after-school activities, such as team sports, or drama and music classes. These help children to learn that they can play a valuable role in a team, while letting other team members play their role, too.
In the past, the focus was on rote learning. Now, experts are arguing that this is no longer the way we should be educating our children. If we want them to be able to take advantage of opportunities in a technological future, we need to teach them a different set of skills.
The 6Cs may not be all that they will need, but, if they master them, they will surely be off to a good start.
The 6Cs and what you can do to foster them in your children.
Collaboration: these are the skills that are needed to work as part of a team such as taking turns, being able to control emotions and being sensitive to the needs of others. Working
on joint projects at school is a way of learning these skills. So is being a member of a sports team or a performing group.
Communication: this is reading, writing, listening and speaking. These skills are being eroded by our increasing dependence on technology so the authors recommend caution when it comes to screen time. Don’t allow devices at the dinner table. Talk instead.
Content: instead of cramming our children’s heads with facts, we should focus on teaching them how to become lifelong learners who are always interested in gaining new skills and developing new interests.
Critical thinking is what we do with content. It’s taking a step back and reflecting on the information and how it can be used. Encourage this in your children by taking their questions
seriously, reading books with them and discussing the storylines and the characters’ actions afterwards.
Creative innovation is the step you take once you know something well enough to make something new. You need to understand the content – whether it’s engineering or how to
draw – before you can experiment to discover something beyond it. The best way for children to do to this is to play games independently. If they get a new toy, don’t show them how to use it. Let them discover it for themselves. They may discover a whole new use for it that you never even imagined.
Confidence is the final C and it consists of the willingness to try as well as the persistence to persevere when you fail. The authors recommend that parents praise their children for effort
rather than for achievement. If you praise effort, your children are more likely to try hard because they think the effort itself is what pleases you. If you praise achievement, they will fear failure as they will expect it to disappoint you.
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