Tag Archives: Skills gap

Youth Suicides and the Skills Gap—Common Denominator?

Peter Gray got me again. As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity  was originally posted Sep 17, 2012 but just showed up again on my feed, and it’s even more relevant today. The situation has arguably worsened considerably in five years.

Gray writes: “In the business world as well as in academia and the arts and elsewhere, creativity is our number one asset.  In a recent IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs acknowledged this when they identified creativity as the best predictor of future success. It is sobering, therefore, to read Kyung Hee Kim’s recent research report documenting a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.”

The article details research methods, explaining how creativity had been accurately measured in the study. If you’re into analytics, read the article–I won’t elaborate here.

Findings summary: “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” (there’s a reason for that!)

We have automation to do menial, repetitive physical stuff, and artificial intelligence to even do some light lifting low-level, analytical thinking. The only way for humans to add value that machines and computers cannot (yet) replicate is our unique ability to think creatively. So kids and adults alike are losing the edge we used to have, and the very capabilities the new workplace most demands.

The economy and the nature of work, for that matter the world, have all changed. Education has not, and it shows. The US workforce is seriously deficient in the new skills, and it starts with poor preparation in school.

If you’ve read much Gray you know his position on traditional education. His concerns include the serious and lasting damage inflicted on our young people by rigidity in education, standard testing, no freedom to play, to explore, to really learn.

How much damage? This came along two days after the Gray article: America sees alarming spike in middle school suicide rate   Research shows that “…increased pressure on students to achieve academically, more economic uncertainty, increased fear of terrorism, and social media are behind the rise in suicides among the young.” And of course bullying, most of which takes place at school, by peers.

We dump our kids into a toxic environment and expect them to learn in ways that are contrary to their natural wiring, and they are not even developing the skills and attributes that may help them survive to adulthood and beyond. And the US workplace is crippled by a poorly prepared talent pool. Related?

Hello (hello…hello…) is there anybody IN there? Just nod if you can hear me.  Is there anybody home?

You’d think we’d eventually wake up and realize this is a life-and-death social and economic problem. We’re failing our young people socially and emotionally, even doing irreparable harm, and plodding along with antiquated teaching methods and curriculum. Along the way we’re trashing the economy and our global competitiveness. It’s more than a double whammy because the two issues are connected and compound each other’ impact.

We expect conformity, we demand following rules, rigidity. We condemn creativity, freedom of expression, exploration. It’s so contrary to human nature. And the same expectations, issues and profound, lasting damage applies to big kids too—at work, in politics, in social interactions.

Gray’s writings and the education reform movement are not just about education, it’s social reform. Much, much bigger than kids in school and the education system.

I’m not an expert, not a “real” educator (full-time subbing doesn’t really count) and I’m a dozen years removed from parenting. So why should I care so much about education and parenting, the way we treat and teach our children, the way we force them to “learn”? Why should I care that society is going down the tubes? I’m old enough, I can surely ride this one out to The End.

The driving purpose behind what I do is a need to to do my part to make the world a better place for future generations. I kind of like my grand children. Haven’t met their kids, and I doubt I’ll have the chance. But I bet I’d like them too. They are why I care, and why we all must care.


Suicide and the skills gap share a common denominator…the two issues are one. They need to be clearly connected and framed together, then a concise and compelling narrative developed: here is the central issue and here are the impacts.

Then share the resulting narrative to build grass roots awareness and concern. The need to act must be elevated to the pressing crisis status it deserves. Emotional well-being can be life-and-death for too many kids, then there’s sustainability of our way of life for all of us. High stakes.

We must attack the issues with a consistent, coordinated focus. But here’s a huge barrier: tons of organizations, armies of concerned people, so many that none seem able to get anything of substance accomplished. Turf wars, fragmentation, over-saturation, diminishing returns. Maybe more simply herding cats, bb’s in a boxcar.  Joiners and activists are mule and Clydesdale, no offspring out of that one. Chaos, anarchy, complexity, rampant A.D.D. Experts blowing their knows all over each other, comment threads akin to meth head babblings. Very few if any groups can stay on-topic and maintain focus on progressing toward a well-articulated common goal. Crafting, sharing and staying focused on a common goal—what a concept!

We need laser-sharp focus and a coordinated attack. Activity does not equal progress.


Post Script: I Rest My Case

There’s technical writing and persuasive writing. Dissertations and journaling on a napkin. Investigative reporting and data analysis, and editorials / opinion pieces. Some folks scream if they don’t see annotations and scads of trustworthy numbers (an oxymoron!). Others could care less about style, sources and data–they’ll look further if they want to. I’m in the latter group. I can do the first examples of writing but at a price–my sanity. But we demand more and more technical expertise, less and less creative thinking. So we get a bunch of grown people sitting around highly polished tables, all fearful of being the first to raising their hand and say “I don’t understand”. Fear and angst in school and the adult world has taken root like a fast-spreading cancer.

Suicide PSS…

I just read a story about a young woman who hung herself several years ago in her college dorm room. Written from her mother’s perspective, it was a look-back at red flags. Her mother said: “I keep coming back to one such warning sign, one that is so obvious now. I don’t know how I didn’t see it: not worrying about future consequences.”

I’ve studied engagement theory and its relevance to young people, a spin-off of my business world involvements turned toward youth and education. One key measure of engagement for kids is their feelings toward the future. I’m no expert but there may be something there.

I taught 4th-6th grade guidance classes off and on for a year, 45 minutes for each class every 10 school days, social-emotional development, bullying stuff. Not nearly enough time. I waited impatiently for the material to turn the kids inward, to help connect them with their inner feelings, put a name on what they dream about, what they hope for, what truly makes them happy. On the flip side, what makes them unhappy, what they fear most. Identify the bogey man under the bed and exorcise it. But the curriculum never went there. So I did what I could to take the kids there off-script

Our education system continues to fail kids and we continue to lose them. One of the reasons radical unschooling is so powerful is that it enables and encourages kids to connect with their Self. We desperately need to re-connect with our humanity, for the common good….no, survival…of kids of all ages. Maybe we need to strive toward making “Un” a state of mind, a way of life?

(Part Two: Living Large With This “Un” Thing)



Closing the Chasm Between Education and the Real World-Part Two

Part One made the case for change, Part Two presents a few starter targets. Part Three defines common ground between the two worlds-it’s not as difficult as we may think to narrow the gap.

(1) Define and Align
STRATEGY: provide access to meaningful, balanced, and relevant lifelong learning. Every toddler, child, adolescent, adult, and senior citizen has the opportunity to be all they can be from early development through traditional education and workforce skills training.
STRATEGY: alignment among stakeholders of education’s purpose, goals and roles.
ACTION: define strategy, reach agreement among stakeholders.

A fundamental question RE roles: why is workforce prep even an academic concern? Educators educate, job trainers should train on job-specific skills. We need to redefine the purpose of education in all phases, and who-does-what. And we need stakeholders to step up and own their own issues. Above all we need to rally around one flag, one system. Coordinated, sustained collaboration among stakeholders is essential to achieve lasting improvements.

(2) System Design: Benchmark!
It’s all out there: CASEL, America’s Promise / GradNation, Edutopia, Gallup’s work on student engagement and strengths-based learning to name a few. None have the stickiness they deserve. They are pretty much stand-alones just waiting for the pieces to come together under one banner. But there is a major question to resolve.

Should education be centrally managed, government-controlled? Or should control be in the hands of the states and local school districts? An important question, but what we’re talking about here is not control. Proposed: a broad benchmarking initiative, then standardize the existing best practices. Build it, they will come…design an irresistible model out of the high-quality materials that already exist. If the model is not embraced, let competition for economic growth create demand for and acceptance of the model…reference back to “Serious ROI” in Part One. Results and profit are powerful recruiters.

(3) Learn a Common Language
Many of the same soft skills apply for leaders and followers in education, the workplace and the community. The same “hard” skills are relevant across the board too. To up the radical ante…young students and adults learn to speak a common language, use common concepts, tools, techniques and applications.
STRATEGY: standardize across all sectors. Start with leaders from the community, education and workplace learning to speak the same language and mastering the same skills so they can model those skills as mentors / coaches (which are also learned skills) for their respective circles of influence. Collective learning and continuous application in private sector, education, family, community and government is the key to sustainable, systemic improvement and social / economic betterment.
ACTION: identify common learning opportunities. Benchmark existing or design new material to provide via an integrated delivery system.
ACTION: explore shared classroom co-learning opportunities. Youth and adults physically learning together…don’t poo-poo it, think why not? Young people would thrive on additional adult interaction, and adults stand to learn a good deal by looking at the same old world through young eyes. We’d boost the power of social norming while we’re at it!

Reality Check: a shared classroom doesn’t always make sense, but at minimum we need standardized learning objectives and a high level of communication to share experiences and extend learning beyond classroom events.

The classroom and the workplace also share a skewed order of priority. #1 enables #2. So #1 is the priority, yet it’s the most lacking. In Part Three we’ll identify specific common ground between the two worlds for #1 social and emotional learning, and #2 process /analytical skills.

The Need for Systemic Focus
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the nation’s  leading organization advancing the development of academic, social and emotional competence for all students. The 2015 CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs provides valuable information on designing an effective SEL system, and identifies a broad range of top-tier programs that meet rigorous review standards.

CASEL maintains that the only way to achieve long-term, lasting change and impact culture is through “systemic effort—a well-planned, well-executed and lasting strategy with common goals that ensure shared focus among all stakeholders.”

CASEL targets social and emotional learning in education, but the four success factors that follow are also relevant in the workplace and the community for making improvements with stickiness. Common effort must be initiated across all stakeholder groups. Potential for success is greater when all success factors are initiated and not treated as entrees on a lite menu: “choose any two of the following.”

Change a few words and these apply equally to social/ emotional and process analysis skills development.
1. Staff models, mentors, coaches behaviors that create a supportive environment for SEL. Leadership at all levels leads by example: SEL talk is consistently walked by all;
2. SEL philosophy and values are integrated with other subjects. Mentoring, modeling and coaching opportunities present themselves regardless of subject, activity, situation;
3. Policies and organizational structure supporting social and emotional development are implemented. Structural support is developed to support achieving clearly stated goals. The private sector approach to performance management is a valuable process here: set clear goals and behavioral expectations, then monitor performance and provide real-time feedback;
4. SEL is taught directly in free-standing lessons, it is a clear point of emphasis. All lesson plans, all communication are consciously crafted to include SEL elements. SEL is reinforced with stated expectations for specific action (#1), monitoring and follow-up.

Maximum-Strength Chasm Closer
Employers need job candidates with the right stuff. Students must learn the right stuff. Their education should be a resume-building experience, generating a personal portfolio with the results of project work and individual assignments providing objective evidence they have the right stuff. Rhetorical question: who must play a critical role in defining “the right stuff”?

If employers were active participants in education, schools would be developmental league farm clubs. Capabilities (NOT ‘current skills level”) and even the right attitudes would be observable in this interface. Graduates could be offered a position or internship even before they leave school, a sure match between candidate and company for both soft attributes and a solid foundation of the right hard skills upon which to build.

The most talented high-potentials are especially valuable to employers. If more than one company is part of a local collaborative, they would have to engage in a bidding war for the prize students. What a powerful, real-time incentive for students to excel.

Most employers have some form of tuition assistance. Students who are hired can fill in the gaps and fine-tune their skill sets once they are on-board. Earn-while-you-learn!

It’s rare to find two colleges where similarly-titled courses are taught the same way using the same text. Let the student and employer beware: all degree programs are not created equal.
How about this for a really radical idea: the US Department of Education / ACE-PONSI offers the means for companies to make their internal courses college credit-earning. For a small fee, companies can have their catalog assessed for academic rigor. The result: incredibly relevant and targeted additions to students’ degree aspirations.

Add a little synergy: a network of companies offering standardized credit-earning courses with project work that targets the individual company’s specific needs. Why create a bunch of redundant stuff? Unless companies are in direct competition, why not collaborate?

Closing Thoughts
(1) The right stuff is already “out there” in both quantity and quality. The real work is in bringing all the pieces together under one standard system, with all stakeholders aligned around common goals that are executed with coordinated effort.
(1a) While across-the-board is the goal, it doesn’t have to happen nationwide to start. A local stakeholder alliance among community, private sector, education and government can have a great impact on the local terrain. It just makes a lot more sense to design one track for all the runners. This race will be won by the swift to act, the finish line is economic and social vitality. Collaboration, not competition!

(2) The need is for balance between (1) social and emotional learning, and (2) process / analytical skills. As #1 is known to enable #2, #1 should be the priority. Yet it is the most lacking, in education and the workplace. Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all (Aristotle)

(3) We’re in this together, let’s work together and learn together. It’s not so far-fetched and it’s the only way to ensure broad acceptance, sustainable results and meaningful change.