8 digital world skills we must teach our children

In the opening years of the 21st Century, much of the conversation in education was trying to answer the question: What skills do our kids need for the rapidly-changing world they will inherit? Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, information literacy, and other similar terms topped the lists.

Now a decade and a half in, social media, handheld devices, wearable technology, and other changes require us to re-think what that set of skills should be, if we want our children to thrive in the current (and future) digital landscape.

Here are eight digital world skills that we need to intentionally teach our kids.

Persistence

This generation is losing its ability to persevere. Unless it’s a game (which has a psychology all its own to keep a user engaged), many kids can’t stick with one thing for very long. We flit from one screen to the next, our tolerance for reading longer-form work is deteriorating, and when we encounter a problem, we give up too easily.

I see this in students quite a bit. They often expect the answers to be easy or readily accessible. When it takes more than a few seconds to dig for information that would lead them to a solution, they won’t try a different search keyword, or a different source. It’s easy to label this as laziness, but maybe it’s more a product of a digital world where the simple answer is a Google search away.

Empathy

In the self-absorbed world of social media, it is easy to overlook the feelings and thoughts of other people. We can observe–and even anonymously comment on–the lives of others without ever rolling up our sleeves and doing the messy work of being human with them. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes in an understanding and emotionally-involved way is needed now more than ever.

Cyberbullying, for example, is not an issue simply because the technology has made it so. Kids have always been mean to other kids. Taking that bullying online, however, has removed even more of the personal responsibility on the part of the often-anonymous bully. Even when it’s not cyberbullying, we often say or write things that we would have filtered had the target been standing physically in front of us.

Discernment

My students have often heard me say: “The amazing thing about the internet is that anyone can publish anything. The unfortunate thing about the internet is that anyone can publish anything.” Google is not always your best friend, I kindly warn them.

With the amount of available information doubling every 18-24 months (according to various analysts), we need to teach our kids how to separate the wheat from the chaff, how not to fall for the first thing they read online, or how to parse out the actual facts and statistics from the spin in which they are communicated. And it’s not just for school projects. We need to deliberately teach them how to judge all information on the basis of who wrote it, when was it written, why was it written, and what is it really saying.

Digital Ethics

Let’s face it: kids are really good at cutting-and-pasting. The tools have made it easy to grab and use anything they find online. When this happens, the ownership of all that content is being ignored. Probably 80% of the images we find in any given Google image search is copyrighted, and the photographers and image creators have given no permission for the use of those photos and images.

This is true of other forms of intellectual property as well, from song lyrics to video to text to quotes. Just because we can find it easily doesn’t mean we should use it easily. In school, we teach kids how to cite sources when they use other people’s stuff. But more than that, they need to decide whether they should use the content in the first place.

Attention Management

Remember all those courses and books on time management that many of us took when we were younger? While the skill of managing our time, priorities, and daily habits is still critical for success in work and life, there is a far more pressing management issue our kids need to master. With the increasing number of distractions at their fingertips, children (and adults) need to manage their attention in a way that allows for focused concentration on one project at a time.

We’ve bought into the myth of “multitasking”, convincing ourselves that we can get more done in the same amount of time. But we are failing horribly at it. And just because our kids have grown up doing the same, it doesn’t mean they are any better at it. Every time our attention gets pulled away from the task at hand, we are losing more than we think.

Deep Work

Beyond just focusing on one task at a time, we need to devote a significant amount of intense focus to meaningful projects, according to Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. When we flit from one distraction to the next, we never give ourselves the time to get absorbed in a project or problem. Innovation and solutions to big problems don’t resolve themselves in five-minute bursts. Instead, we need to teach our kids how to get into that state of flow where real thinking and creating happens.

Reflection

I’m not advocating for transcendental meditation here. Simply, we live in a noisy world, often one of our own making. The ability to get quiet and be reflective is not only refreshing in our busyness, but necessary for accomplishing significant work. It allows us the critical time for processing what we’ve heard or seen. We don’t often allow (or require) kids the opportunity to internalize what they are learning, making it a part of their understanding or habits.

Apart from the educational reasons, meditative reflection has enormous health benefits. For those of you who have a middle school student in your house, you know just how stressful a time this can be for them. Without regular breaks from the noise, screens, and pressures, it is more than most tweens are equipped to handle.

Initiative

Many organizations, experts, and studies predict that, by 2020, between 40-50% of the workplace will be self-employed, independent workers. Even now, running your own company or doing solo entrepreneurial work is becoming more accessible and more commonplace. Employers are increasingly relying on outsourcing work to freelancers instead of full-time, in-house employees. The most successful workers may soon be the ones who don’t have a single employer, but a list of clients.

This initiative, more immediately, creates kids who know how to advocate for themselves with teachers and other adults, who see opportunities to serve others in their community, and who are able to manage and monitor themselves. Too many kids are already learning how to play the victim– a view that life is something that happens to them. To combat this, we need to encourage initiative, even an entrepreneurial spirit, in our children.

What other “digital world” skills should be on this list? Add your own to the comments below! 

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