What is going to separate the successful students from the mediocre ones in the 21st century? One surprising answer may lie in how they use their cell phones and other technology. Tony Wagner, John Seely Brown, and others have written extensively about what kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions are important for students to develop in order to prepare for life, citizenship, and work—including jobs that may not exist yet.
Wagner interviewed top leaders about which skills they wanted to see in their most valuable employees, and found that the modern workplace needs:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Collaboration across networks
- Leading by influence
- Agility and adaptability
- Curiosity and imagination
My own experiences as a high-tech executive leader support his conclusions. And sadly, it reflects how poorly most standard educational experiences imbue students with these skills.
In a competitive work environment, future employees must have both outstanding technical skills and the dispositions needed for self-organization and self-management. I found that some employees had developed these skills independently (often despite their educational backgrounds). Most employees are able to un-learn their counterproductive habits and participate as low-maintenance, low-drama, high-contributing colleagues. However, some are (as I’ve written on my company’s blog) essentially ruined by their educational experiences:
“These were the employees that believed that they would be graded better by their managers if they came up with the right answer that the manager wanted without cheating by asking others for help. In reality, those employees were valued more by their teams when they came up with thoughtful alternatives and trade-offs that improved individual and team decision-making using good judgment about how to optimize their time between individual work and getting help from those with useful perspectives.”
Fortunately, in large part, our teachers are professionals and experts who know there is more to teaching than garnering high test scores. They want to connect with each student and find the inspiration that sets that child on the path to learning that follows her curiosity, as well as learning from others and helping others to learn.
But teachers face extensive obstacles, including students with differing needs, differing learning preferences, and who are at different places in their learning. Some students come to school hungry or afraid, some have needs that make it difficult for them to learn in a classroom. At the same time, class sizes are increasing, budgets are being reduced, and there are not enough resources or time to personalize learning for, or even to really know, each student. Educational apps and online classes can support students practicing skills or learning at their own pace, and traditional lectures can be moved from the classroom to YouTube But these uses only scratch the surface of what is possible.
Something magical happens when every student and teacher has a mobile device with 24-7 access to the Internet. The lines between formal and informal learning start to blur. Barriers to guiding independent learners start to fall, and educators finally have the tools to teach in the best way they know how. Learning starts to look more like the best of professional collaboration instead of sitting in rows, memorizing facts and procedures.
With connected mobile devices, students take advantage of down time in the classroom to learn in snippets of time using math apps, spelling apps, e-readers, and more. With connected devices available anywhere, any time, students help each other with homework, projects, and research. Students become confident and capable critics of their own and other students’ work through online posting of assignments. Classroom work becomes increasingly problem- and project-based as more fact- and procedure-based learning happens outside the classroom. The learning day is extended beyond the four walls of the classroom as students continue to work with each other and communicate from wherever they may be after school.
Is this idea counterintuitive, given that many educators view mobile devices—with the ability to play games and text—a distraction from the learning process? Maybe so, but these outcomes are increasingly being reported in schools that support personal, connected mobile devices. For example, in the extensively documented Learning Untethered project I participated in last year, fifth graders naturally shifted from passive receivers of information to active, independent learners as a result of using mobile devices in and outside of the classroom.
Did mobile devices cause these students to suddenly gain the skills they will need for modern life? No, but they mitigated the obstacles that prevented great teachers from fostering those skills and dispositions in each student while also preparing them with the specific knowledge of math, reading, and science needed to do well on standardized tests. Their students are the ones who will have all the skills to thrive in the rapidly changing, unpredictable world of the 21st century.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.