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How Soft Skills, Passion and Connection Can Promote Learning, Competence and Employability

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When you think about the skills and knowledge today's students will need most in the future, what comes to mind?

In 2010, there were 41.7 million college graduates in the U.S., and 21 million of them were in jobs that didn't require a college degree. In China, months after graduation, 3 million graduates were unemployed from the class of 2013 alone.

Schools traditionally place the majority of value on the academic skills students acquire in school. Employers, however, often cite communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking, ingenuity, innovation, and risk-taking as the most sought after skills in new hires. Now, think of the things that a young person can do to promote those qualities. Three things came to mind when I asked myself this question:

Gaming, athletics, music.

Jane McGonigal is an ambitious alternate reality game designer who believes gaming has the potential to unlock solutions to world hunger, poverty, and conflicts. In her 2010 TED talk, she lists the four skills that gamers have which give them the potential to solve the world's most urgent problems:
  1. Extreme self motivation or the optimistic outlook that an "epic win" is always possible.
  2. The desire to work hard, if the work interests them.
  3. A strong sense of community built through trust with other people in the game, regardless of if they are ultimately the winner or loser.
  4. Epic meaning or the knowledge that they are a part of and contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory of success is based on research that suggests that 10,000 hours is the amount of time it takes someone to master a skill. McGonigal takes interest in this number because it is also the number of hours the average gamer spends playing video games by the time they are 21, as well as the number of hours students spend in school from fifth through twelfth grade. What could be accomplished if the parallel universes of school and extracurricular game-time collided? Perhaps in this alternate reality we find engaged students, or even a cure for cancer.

The skills and characteristics that McGonigal attributes to gamers are nothing new. These skills have long been learned, regarded, and referred to by a myriad of names -- intrinsic, soft, non-cognitive -- and acquired in the activities of old: the arts. While many school reform advocates demand more STEM learning in the classroom to prepare students for the changing world, Lisa Phillips, author of The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World, urges us not to leave out one important letter from the popular acronym. She hopes to scribble in an "A" to turn STEM into STEAM.

Creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, receiving constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication, accountability. Those are just some of the transferable skills Phillips has seen artists develop in their practice. Arguably, these skills can also be acquired in playing sports. Consider how the scenarios from the daily routine of a ballet dancer or football player might leverage their success in school or career:

  • Performing in front of an audience
  • Showing up to practice on time
  • Literally falling down and getting back up
  • Working on achieving personal goals while moving with the company or team as a whole
  • Accepting constant feedback from an instructor or coach and executing the critique
  • Using creative and problem solving skills to choreograph a pass across the stage or the field

Musicians also believe their practice sharpens qualities similar to the ones McGonigal cites for gamers. In the recent New York Times article, "Is Music the Key to Success?", Joan Lipman interviews high achievers who are best known for their accomplishments outside of the music realm, such as director Woody Allen, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd to name a few. These high achievers say music sharpened their collaboration, creativity, discipline, and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas.

Gaming gets a bad rap, but it might be the key to engage more young minds in activities that interest them, while simultaneously solving real-world problems. Athletics and the arts aren't for everyone. Gaming is an activity that is cheap, safe, fun, accessible, and it's the future. Whether it's in front of a screen or in a studio, students must be engaged in activities that exercise the human power of problem solving, creative thinking, perseverance, grit, accountability, motivation, teamwork, and so on to truly be a world power.

Human-powered technology has incredible possibilities. Recently a Washington University biologist put the "complex structure of an enzyme that exhibits AIDS-like behavior" into the online game Foldit -- a platform where people solve real problems for science -- for fun. 10 days later, the gamers solved the puzzle. Scientists had been working on unraveling the complex enzyme for 10 years. Or consider the Red Cross, who for the past two years has had a virtual war game in development that trains special units to act within the rules of the Geneva Convention when placed in a virtual war crime scenario.

The question is not if we can afford to change the old learning paradigms to include online and game-based learning. Nor is it a question of the value individuals get through experiencing the arts or playing toward a common goal on a team. The question is, how can we forge a better connection between the skills students learn outside of school and time spent in the classroom? Where do non-cognitive skills fit in a cognitive-based classroom? How can we provide value to each and every student, especially those who are not from a family of means? And how can extracurricular activities teach people what they're capable of, how to deal with setbacks, and their own personal limitations? How can all students have access to games, music, and sports and similar paths of enrichment -- not just students from middle and upper class families?