21st Century Teaching and Learning Wisdom

Are we teaching students to adapt and grow into complex roles and environments?

In his article, 21st Century Talent Spotting, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz writes about the idea that “potential trumps brains, experience, and competencies.”  At the beginning of the article, he tells the story of two executive searches he led.  The first one, a highly trained, experienced, proven corporate leader was hired to take the helm of a company but only lasted a few years because he was unable to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding the company.  In the second story, a less highly trained and experienced leader who did not have a skill set directly transferable to the company he was going to lead, but who was very adaptable and responsive, went on to successfully lead the company for decades.

Why did the CEO of the electronics business, who seemed so right for the position, fail so miserably?  Any why did Algorta (the second story), so clearly unqualified, succeed so spectacularly?  The answer is potential: the ability to adapt and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments.

The author makes the case that the question is not whether an organizations leaders and employees have the right skills, but it’s more about their potential to learn new skills as the circumstances arise, especially since the circumstances change so rapidly in our globally and technologically driven society.

So here is my question: How are schools teaching or helping their students develop skills that allow them to be adaptable and flexible to changes happening around them?  Are schools, and the curricula they have adopted, more interested in filling students heads with knowledge and skills that will not serve them well in the 21st Century world they enter?  Claudio Fernandez-Araoz suggests that “potential is much harder to discern than competence” (p.50).  If so, is it then harder in schools to create a learning environment that nurtures the true potential in each person than it is to fill their heads with knowledge and skills.

What is the parallel in schools to what Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is quoted as having said: “Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of our success.”  The implication is that hiring employees and being able to discern their potential to make a difference is critical to the success of a business.

How do we discern whether a student has the potential to be adaptable, flexible and responsive to changing circumstances in his or her environment?  It won’t be through their test scores or their grades from their previous school.  It might be through their “references.”  It would certainly be possible to discern their potential through some interesting and challenging simulation.  Why not?

Of course, once we have students in school does our curriculum facilitate and promote the development of skills required to be adaptable and flexible?  Do we help students develop patience, fortitude, grit, perseverance in the face of adversity, good listening skills, the ability to discern, and thoughtfulness?  From my experience, it is pretty hit and miss, mostly miss.  In the article, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz identifies four skills that people who exhibit great potential exhibit.  They are:





Not a bad list.  What if schools were required to develop a rubric that they used to self-assess whether these four skills were actually being taught through their programming?  Interesting idea?

We can do better but we need to pay attention to the development of students potential to respond in creative and resourceful ways to their changing environment.

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