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3 Essential Skills for the 21st Century

Over the past two years my school district has been involved in a strategic planning process with the expressed goal of better understanding our mission as a district and what kind of education we want our children to experience. In the process we asked ourselves: what do we want our children to learn? As you would expect, the answers included broader global perspective, technology, foreign languages -- important knowledge and skills, for sure.
 
I also had the opportunity to attend the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference in September 2013. Much of the conference focused on the role of modern universities in higher education and where and how e-learning platforms like Khan Academy and Coursera might fit in. What struck me though, was that something was missing. What skills do I really want my children to learn? What skills will serve them as they enter the workforce? What skills will lead to success in the 21st Century? It came down to three essential skills, which I call vetting, synthesis and curation.
 
That Third Kind of Vet
 
Being able to properly vet might be the most important of the three skills. I’m not talking about curing sick animals or retiring from military service. I’m talking about “subjecting to thorough examination or evaluation.”
 
We’ve been trained to rely on experts to vet for us. If we go back 30 years or so, we would find experts in a limited number of places: 
academia, government and non-government organizations, and major corporations including media. When I was a kid and I wanted to learn about something I was told to either look it up in the dictionary or the encyclopedia. What are you told today? Google it, of course.
 
A key element in vetting is to become more discerning in the content we consume.  As I wrote in The Age of Thought Leadership:
 
     “…the Information Age is allowing experts to step out from behind the veil of a corporate (or academic) entity…
 
This is a double-edged sword. As individuals we can develop and express thought leadership. However, also as individuals, we can no longer solely rely on third parties for pre-vetting our content. Anyone, anywhere can write something and publish it for public consumption. Being able to discern truth from fiction is no easy task so we need to develop a healthy level of skepticism.  For this generation (and beyond?), we also need to emphasize research skills. Part of this is knowing the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. How many of our grade school children know and understand the difference? College? The general population? 
 
We all need to learn that third kind of vet.
 
Staying One Step Ahead of The Customer
 
With the pace of innovation and evolution in the technology space, vendors and service providers sometimes find themselves in an interesting position — teaching and implementing for their customers what they only just figured out the night before. So I ask, is this a bad thing? It requires my second skill for the 21st Century: synthesis. 
 
I remember in high school taking my first programming class. The mere concept of teaching programming in grade school was so new that my teacher  (a math teacher by training) was taking an evening class in computer programming and then coming in to class the next day and teaching us what she had just learned. To a certain extent we already knew more than she did (we were hacking our TRS-80‘s at home) but she helped put some structure around what we knew and filled in the gaps. Was it so bad? As a trained educator, our teacher had experience in taking in knowledge and then creating a framework to transfer that knowledge to her students. The challenge, I would imagine, was the pace at which she needed to do that process. What made her effective was her ability to synthesize what she had just learned and quickly turn it around and teach her class.
 
Good consultants can synthesize and apply new information quickly and effectively. There is an abundance of information out there but that ability is much more rare. I remember working on Wall Street and looking to hire a consultant to do some programming. We gave all the prospective consultants a programming test: they had 30 minutes to write code for a particular specification. After interviewing dozens of candidates there was only one consultant who was able to finish that program. The most impressive part of the process was he didn’t even know the programming language! He asked for a copy of the manual (the only one to ask) and cranked out the code with time to spare. An impressive display, and it taught me an important lesson: the ability to learn and apply — to synthesize — is very powerful.
 
As we hire and develop employees, as we educate our children, what should we be looking for? It’s clearly not enough to hire for knowledge, or even experience. The ever accelerating rate with which new information and new technology is entering the marketplace creates challenges for those who can’t keep pace and adapt. What I see happening is the most successful 21st Century knowledge workers have the ability to rapidly synthesize information — learning something, contextualizing it, and then being able to effectively apply it.
 
Which Song Comes Next?
 
I heard this new song by Jack White, "Lazaretto." I’ve listened to it dozens of times. After the umpteenth time it occurred to me that what I really wanted was another song just like it. I wanted to know what song comes next. I tried Pandora and Spotify, but they just didn’t cut it. I see this as just an example of the challenges we face today trying to find what we’re looking for — or even what we don’t know we’re looking for — in an endless sea of content. My third skill relates to my question about which song comes next. It has to do with being able to vet and synthesize, and then correlate, organize and disseminate. That skill is curation.
 
I was listening to an interview with Jimmy Iovine. A specific problem he’s looking to solve is answering what he feels is a very important question (and one which as it happens was important to me as well): Which song comes next? In the old days of music we relied on DJ’s and producers to give us guidance on this. Lot’s of thought went into set lists and deciding which songs to put on an album. There were even album compilations (Greatest Hits of the 70′s, anyone), all attempting to place a layer of curation over the music we listened to.
 
The same is true for all content. Historically we’ve relied on institutions to curate content for us. Whether its text books and encyclopedias, as in my youth, or periodicals and broadcast news, we were trained to look to institutions like corporations, universities and government for expertise and authoritative curation. Digital tools and social media have democratized thought leadership. That’s the good news. The challenge is the confusion we face when looking for content. Maybe some day computers will be sophisticated enough to make these associations for us, but what we have today is humans filling that role.
 
Jimmy Iovine maintains there still needs to be some expert, human interaction. I’ll leave that for others to decide. I look at it as an opportunity. This is more than just personal branding. This is filling a need. Curation is an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and what you want to be known for (pancakes, anyone?), as well as provide a resource for others to get value from the that sea of content.
 
Teach Your Children Well
 
The pace at which content is being created is not only unprecedented, but it continues to accelerate. Looking to the future, the way we educate our children and train our workforce must include the skills necessary to wade through that content, keep pace with it and contextualize it. We need to work to develop these three essential skills of the 21st Century: vetting, synthesis and curation. 

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