Skills that Transcend Time

August 1, 2019

The World Economic Forum recently published the skills every 21st Century student needs (What are the 21st Century Skills Every Student Needs?). A few years ago, Tony Wagner published his Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century. I can go on…there are many lists of what “kids need to know.” We know the hard part isn’t the what, it is the how. It is clear that there are certain skills that are always applicable — a set of timeless skills.

Let’s compare two lists: Wagner and the World Economic Forum.

It is clear that 17 of the 18 skills listed overlap. The only non-overlapping skill is “Social and Cultural Awareness.” However, I have a hard time believing that Wagner wouldn’t accept that skill as important (though we may struggle on a common definition).

The obvious question here is: was there ever or will there even be a time when these skills are not essential, valued or applicable? We could go through each skill, but we’d come up with the same answer. All of these skills transcend time. The issue is, however, that the traditional educational system teach these skills. Frankly, traditional school schedules don’t allot the time to cover life skills.

The second question lies in the ambiguity of this list of skills. At Alpha, we define effective oral and written communication as writing a great e-mail, tweet or delivering an elevator pitch. Pretty straight forward. Why not just state exactly what you mean? Doesn’t it make more sense to have an endless list of skills that are clearly defined and tangible? Anecdotally, I’ve met very few middle school students that can comprehend what “agility and adaptability” means in a practical sense.

The opportunity to learn all of these skills exists in the Alpha program. By engaging in the work at Alpha, students learn how to collaborate and lead. But, we don’t directly teach these skills (students don’t attend leadership class or complete a unit on collaboration — that sounds miserable). Alpha is carefully cultivated to optimize for life skills. Everything we do is built around life skills.

Deep machine learning, in which computers (machines) can generate their own algorithms to determine outcomes, could tell us an actual list of skills that transcends time. If we crunched all the data available, what would an algorithm determine as the essential skills? It could be a fluid list — always adapting for world change and innovation. Or the machine could be used to determine if a program really produces these outcomes — does your school actually teach tools that transcend time?