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Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.
(Photo: frankjuarez/Flickr)

(Photo: frankjuarez/Flickr)

As the leader of a non-profit organization that strives to help the world’s children develop vital social and emotional skills early in life, I was pleased to read this recent article about the growing demand throughout the economy for employees with affective abilities.

Especially heartening in the piece—“Employers Are Looking for New Hires With Something Extra: Empathy”—was a report from an advisory group of U.K. executives and educators, who told Fortune’s Geoff Colvin that “Non-cognitive skills and attributes such as team working, emotional maturity, empathy, and other interpersonal skills are as important as proficiency in English and mathematics.”

This is refreshing thinking, because, in so many ways, education policy has been stuck in the manufacturing age, driving schools to turn out people who recite information and pass cognitive tests so that they can make products effectively. Meanwhile, business has moved at light-speed into the information age. To put it bluntly: Education policy hasn’t kept up with the competency requirements of 21st-century work environments.

Smart educators know social-emotional skills aren’t a nice-to-have frill, or an extra add-on; they’re fundamental to a well-educated 21st-century child’s future well-being.

A good example, as the Fortune article makes clear, is the empathy that’s needed when we’re creating well-designed products. It’s not just about coding a functional e-widget. Steve Jobs started it at Apple, and now people increasingly want elegant solutions; so, even software engineers need to be able to stand in the customer’s shoes today and feel how the end-user will respond to product design. This is a great reason why social-emotional skills are so critical to modern workplaces.

Another reason is that 21st-century work environments are all about cross-functional teaming, collaboration, and integrated design. They’re also about working with people remotely, and these diffused work settings put a higher premium on social-emotional competence than old-school work environments ever did: It takes more effort and skill to connect on a human level with someone when you’re not in the same room with them.

Social-emotional skills are absolutely essential for 21st-century leaders, too.

More and more, we’re seeing that to be a successful boss these days, you simply can’t be bossy. You need to be collaborative and convivial. You need to sell ideas to your teams. You need to listen well. You need to be attentive to customers’ needs. You need to understand and internalize another’s perspective. And you need to appreciate everyone’s problems and concerns and use that data to come up with win-win solutions.

Just as significantly, it’s very difficult to demonstrate the cultural competence that’s required in the global marketplace today if you’re not imbued with social-emotional learning.

We now work with people from highly diverse backgrounds—and many of us interact with colleagues from just about every continent on a regular business basis. Indeed, almost every technology company is asking people from Silicon Valley or Seattle to team up with employees or contractors from Mumbai or Shanghai. Sometimes these people work together in the same physical space; and other times they’re solving difficult problems together in a Web-based setting.

I find these multicultural environments fascinating—and they present a wonderful and rich opportunity for learning, growth, and the development of substantive human relationships.

But these deeper relationships require sensitivity, empathy, social awareness, and an ability to imagine a completely different life experience from our own. When people who work in these environments possess these skills, collaboration can be magical and highly profitable; and when they lack these skills, collaboration can be disastrous with serious and negative bottom-line implications.

The big question we need to confront is whether current policy is allowing educators to prepare our children for today’s workplace, and for the future work environments we’ve yet to imagine.

Despite the fact that technology will play an even greater role than it does now, and that multicultural teams will become even more common, the answer to that question is “no.”

The sad truth is that many educators aren’t allowed the classroom time to teach much-needed social and emotional skills or to test kids for these competencies; and with the exception of just a few states, we don’t have policies that support schools in imparting these skills to children.

Yet smart educators know that these social-emotional skills aren’t a nice-to-have frill, or an extra add-on. Instead, they’re fundamental to a well-educated 21st-century child’s future well-being. That’s why so many educators are teaching, advocating, and advancing social-emotional learning in spite of education policies.

“Teachers across America understand that social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical to student success in school, work, and life,” according to the 2014 Missing Piece Survey of educators, commissioned by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. “Educators know these skills are teachable; want schools to give far more priority to integrating such development into the curriculum, instruction, and school culture; and believe state student learning standards should reflect this priority. Teachers also want such development to be available for all students.”

But wouldn’t it be so much better if educational policy truly reflected the necessity of social-emotional learning in our schools? I believe so.

Illinois and Kansas have already passed education standards for SEL. In addition, most states include SEL standards for early learning. But these standards often stop at or before the elementary school level, and we need to address this oversight.

In the end, this is a preparation and prosperity issue—and we would do well to listen to all the empathy-seeking employers out there who are clamoring for employees with social and emotional competency.