In the next few decades, over 50 percent of American workers could be replaced by smart machines. (That’s the word from a recent University of Oxford study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne.) Even scarier: many of our schools aren’t helping kids make the most of their “human” mental and emotional skills that even the smartest machine can’t replicate. How can we prepare our kids to land (and thrive in) one of the jobs that are left?
First, we must realize that “smart” doesn’t mean what it once did. Because we now have the digital tools to instantly access virtually any fact or concept, memorizing a large body of knowledge no longer makes sense. That means today’s “smart” people are aware of and honest about what they don’t know. They’re also adept asking meaningful questions and thinking critically about the answers.
Second, we must shift away from teaching facts, figures, and formulas and begin showing students how to think critically and innovatively, solve problems, work well in teams, and more.
Some schools have already started this process. But they shouldn’t—and can’t—change the education paradigm on their own.
So what does this mean for parents? You must take an active role in imparting the “how-to-learn” skills your children will need once they enter the job market. I don’t mean helping them with their homework. I do mean working with them 24/7 to turn them into curious, lifelong learners (as opposed to effective test-takers).
It’s not as daunting as it sounds. Here are five simple steps you can take:
Banish “What did you learn in school today?” from your question bank. Your job is not to encourage kids to rehash content but to examine its meaning and to spark curiosity. In fact, it’s great if your child questions what he was “taught.” Does he believe it? How does he feel about it? And—best of all—should he Google what other sources have to say?
Constantly scout for “how-to-learn” moments. (They’re everywhere.) Include your children the next time you book airfare and a hotel for a business trip. Talk about the criteria you use to find a “good” deal, and explain what you do (and how you manage your emotions) when you’re assigned a less-than-desirable room. If you’re putting together a report for work, explain to your kids how you collect data, revise your writing, and handle your boss’s criticism.
Praise hard work more than you do straight As. Yes, grades matter, but the “real world” rewards persistence and effort more than GPAs. Instead of saying, “What a great grade on that test,” say, “I admire how hard you studied—and I’m glad you find chemistry so interesting that you checked out a library book about it!”
Challenge them to improve their corner of the world. Because they haven’t been exposed to as many can’t-s, won’t-s, and shouldn’t-s as adults, kids can be surprisingly fearless. Find out what they’d like to change about their school—their community—the world. Ask them to “invent” a product using items from around your house, and to describe why it’s helpful. These exercises will help your kids hone their critical and innovative thinking skills, and will also accustom them to explaining and defending their views.
Don’t let them play it safe. Not only should you not punish mistakes, you should encourage reasonable actions that result in them. Tomorrow’s workers need to take risks, so get your child used to it now. If she never fails, it means she never stretches her boundaries or takes a chance. It also means she’s not developing the resilience she needs to recover from a mistake and come back with a fresh idea.
Your kids need to understand that while grades matter, knowing “how to learn” is much more important than any content. Helping them truly “get” this is one of your most important jobs as a parent—it will set them up not just for a great career but a rich and rewarding life.
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Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, by Columbia Business School Publishing (September 2014).