Within days thousands of people shared one simple sentence on Facebook: “We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted & more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.” At first sight, this might sound like just another warm-hearted wish, but it is also a hard economic fact—and vital for our society as a whole.
In the business world right now, everyone is expecting the great wave of digitization, and nobody knows how many jobs it will bring and which ones it will wash away. A factory worker might be replaced by a robot, an investment banker by an algorithm. Knowing how to handle a computer will, therefore, become ever more important.
Yet even the most intelligent machines will probably never be able to perform many essential tasks that have a deeply human component—such as teaching, counseling, or caring. No educational software in the world can replace the encouraging words of a teacher, and no big data-based diagnosis can substitute for the sympathetic ear of a doctor.
Moreover, the very IT professions themselves require ever closer cooperation in frequently changing, ever more diverse teams. According to a recent study by Harvard economist David Deming, the number of jobs that require social skills has risen by almost a quarter since 1980.
In short, it will be more and more important to show empathy, be open-minded towards other people, and be good at team work and collaboration. This is also the foundation upon which social cohesion and democracy are built. But this foundation is showing major cracks.
Society seems to be drifting apart
Politics is becoming increasingly polarized—accompanied by the ever more aggressive sounds coming from the echo chambers of the internet, which people use to goad each other on. There is no simple, top-down solution to all of this.
But it is possible to strengthen the character skills of young people in particular. These skills are not innate, but need to be acquired and developed, says James Heckman, the Nobel laureate in economics. This needs to start at an early age.
Therefore, these skills should be integrated into the general education system. One possible way how this can be done is shown by the Scouts.
As part of a recent pilot in England, various schools launched a cooperation project with the Scouts. A few months into the project, an evaluation already showed positive impacts on the students—compared to a student group that had not participated in the project. Aspects named included improvements in leadership, communication, and students’ overall relationship with their school.
This seems plausible, for the Scouts are only superficially about camping out in the forest. Rather, the girls and boys are supposed to learn what matters in life in general: how to organize themselves in small groups, how to cope with conflicts, how to help others. Moreover, they are to develop something else entirely: “grit.”
Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. This is how award-winning psychologist Angela Duckworth describes it in her book of the same title, which became a recent bestseller in the United States. In it she writes that grit is often more important than talent. Grit is crucial in a rapidly changing world where all of us need to continually keep educating and developing ourselves.
60 percent of elementary school students will work in jobs that do not yet exist.
The World Economic Forum cites estimates according to which more than 60 percent of elementary school students will end up working in jobs that do not yet exist. It is therefore all the more important to teach young children not only math, German, and IT, but also motivation, self-discipline, and faith in their ability to learn.
We need a collective effort to improve the social and emotional skills of all children.
We all are called upon to educate our children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces to become humane and resilient people. To this end, it needs more cooperation projects like the one between the English schools and the Scouts.
Besides digital education, we need a collective effort to improve the social and emotional skills of all children and youth. This is how we make them strong and resilient in these nervous times.
This article was first published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.