Skills That Our Children Need in the Twenty-First Century.
The twenty-first century is characterised by an innovation-driven economy and rapidly emerging technology. We find ourselves in an age when digital screens have taken over our lifestyles and our industries are fast becoming automated. We all want our children to become successful individuals in life, well-equipped to cope with these changing times. But what exactly are the skills that they need to thrive in the twenty-first century? What abilities and traits are the most valuable today?
We, as parents, typically want our children to secure the best grades or the top position in class. However, academic performance is only one indicator of your child's ability and may not always reflect his or her potential to succeed in life. The skills that our children require may be categorized in various ways. The traditional approach is to classify these as either hard skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, or soft skills such as leadership, critical thinking, and communication, which academic performance may fail to reflect adequately. While a certain level of proficiency in hard skills is a must, particularly the ability to create technology-based content, it is these so-called "soft" skills that are increasingly becoming more relevant today. Significantly, parents and teachers often take such soft skills for granted.
According to World Economic Forum's New Vision for Education, these hard skills, also called foundational literacies, are only one of the three broad categories of skills most needed in the twenty-first century. The second category includes competencies like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity that describe how students approach complex challenges. Finally, character qualities like curiosity, adaptability, and persistence demonstrate students' response to their changing environment.
Research by Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) identifies 4Cs as among the most important twenty-first century skills for children: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. These learning and innovation skills, according to P21, best prepare students for the complex life and work environments of today. The research also lists adaptability, self-direction, productivity, leadership, and cross-cultural skills as other essential life and career skills for today.
These skills can be developed in children by providing them exposure, rather than mere instructions. It is advisable to take your child to places where he or she can learn through practical experience and become familiar with different environments. For example, bring your child to your workplace and show him or her the work that you and your colleagues are doing. Similarly, it is important for schools to connect the curriculum with real life problems through practical learning activities and educational trips. Relying on texts and theory alone can alienate children from the demands of the real world and make them hesitant in interacting with the world beyond their home and school.
When imparting these skills to our children, it is also important to strike a meaningful balance between Dunya and Deen. The core values of Islam such as honesty, truthfulness, justice, modesty, and valour are not irrelevant in any age. Hence, teach your children to be Akhirah-oriented and never compromise their values for worldly success or short-term gain. Take care not to ignore their spiritual needs and make them conscious of the purpose of their creation.
We will now consider in detail some of the most critical skills needed in the twenty-first century.
In a 2010 global survey conducted by IBM, involving over 1,500 CEOs from 33 industries, creativity was identified as the single most important success factor for the twenty-first century. But what exactly is creativity? According to the definition by World Economic Forum, it is the "ability to imagine and devise new, innovative ways" of addressing problems or answering questions. Another highly valued and related skill is critical thinking, which is the ability to analyze different situations for formulating responses and solutions. These two skills are the key to innovation and complex problem-solving in today's world.
A simple way of developing creativity in children is to ask them to brainstorm a real-life problem or dilemma; encourage them to come up with solutions, no matter how impractical, and discuss various alternatives with them. Strategy games, puzzles, and sports can also flex children's creative muscles. In fact, according to a recent study by Stanford University, something as simple as walking improves a person's creative thinking. On the other hand, stress and pessimism reduce creativity, as does sitting at one's desk for too long.
Without initiative, you are unable to put your ideas into action. Those, who are willing to take the first step - which is often the most difficult one - naturally make good leaders. When the Prophet's (sa) companion, Abdur-Rahman bin Auf (rtam) migrated to Madinah having left his property behind, Sad bin Al-Rabee (rtam) offered him half his possessions. However, Abdur-Rahman (rtam) asked Sad (rtam) to direct him to the market instead, so he could start anew and take the initiative of building his business from scratch. Moreover, in today's world, not everything that children need to know is taught in schools. Hence, they must be willing to take the initiative to acquire new skills and undergo new experiences. Teenagers, in particular, should be taught to use the internet to their advantage by engaging in independent learning.
Focus is necessary not only for performing the routine tasks efficiently but also for innovating and addressing challenging problems. However, today's generation find it quite challenging to focus on a task for extensive time periods due to the internet in general and social media in particular. Our children tend to have lower concentration spans and get distracted easily. Therefore, train your children to put their phones and other devices away, when engaged in a task or spending time with family. Focus is more easily retained by avoiding multitasking and training children to stay focused on a single task. Exercise also helps improve our focus. According to a Harvard study, regular exercise releases brain chemicals that improve memory, concentration, and mental sharpness.
Children who are not encouraged to collaborate with their siblings and friends may struggle with their future personal and professional relationships. The ability to work effectively as part of a team is imperative to the modern workplace. More organizations today are adopting a horizontal structure - having fewer management levels and a larger number of employees in each team, thereby necessitating good teamwork skills. The Prophet (sa) sought to enhance the spirit of collaboration among his companions. From establishing a formal brotherhood to digging the trench around Madinah, there are many fine examples of collaboration among the early Muslims.
As Albert Einstein said: "The important thing is not to stop questioning". Curiosity, translated into inquisitiveness, is seen as a valuable twenty-first century skill. Top organizations today train their business leaders to reach the root of a problem by constantly asking "Why?" Dr. Laura A. Jana, a world leading paediatrician and educator, asks a pertinent question: "Why should we have to go to such great lengths to train adults to do something that comes so naturally to two- and three-year-olds?" The answer, she says, is that, unfortunately, we train the skill of curiosity out of children. Hence, parents should be patient with children, when they are asking questions. Children should be encouraged to ask questions, whether logical or not, by both parents and teachers to nurture their inquisitiveness.
6. Impulse Control
In the twenty-first century, being willing and able to resist one's urges is particularly important, as avenues to sin, temptation, and addiction are plenty and all around us. Teach your children from an early age to control their thoughts and feelings - and consequently, their actions. Remind them that Allah (swt) witnesses every act of theirs, and encourage them to remember Him often. Impulse control enables us to channel our thoughts in a positive way, be orderly and disciplined, and, ultimately, achieve more in life. On the other hand, being unwilling to say "no" to oneself leads to one's moral decline, until the person becomes slave to his or her desires, as Allah (swt) says in the Quran: "Have you seen him who takes his own lust (vain desires) as his Ilah (god)...?" (Al-Jathiyah 45:23)
Effective communication, both verbal and written, is the key to expressing one's ideas and marketing one's abilities. The Prophet (sa) said: "Some eloquent speech is as effective as magic." (Bukhari) Encourage your children to speak with confidence and authority, and to enhance their writing skills by reading quality literature on topics of their interest. While the twenty-first century is described as the information age, it is also the age of information overload. As a result, the ability to communicate concisely and clearly is often valued more than being able to speak or write at length. Hence, teach your children to express more ideas in fewer words. Communication also includes the ability to listen and understand well - something we take for granted. Good listening skills are especially relevant in the modern age as content is increasingly transmitted in the form of audio and video files.
A lack of belief in one's self is one of the greatest stumbling blocks in today's highly competitive environment. Those, who are not confident about their abilities, tend to under-achieve and lose out on potentially life-changing opportunities. A self-confident child responds positively to new challenges and is better prepared to take calculated risks in life. While over-confidence is undesirable, expressing faith in one's abilities is a positive trait. Consider the following statement of Prophet Yusuf (as), who felt he could do a job well and made it known to the king of Egypt: "Set me over the storehouses of the land; I will indeed guard them with full knowledge." (Yusuf 12:55)
Help your child stay determined and motivated in life. Extrinsic motivation, which is based on rewards and punishment, is not always sufficient, however. Teach your children to be intrinsically or self-motivated, deriving a sense of achievement from their efforts and accomplishments. Make them feel good about the hard work they put in and help them realize that failure is an essential part of learning. Besides, not giving up is the key to achieving anything great. "Fail early, fail often, and fail forward" is the unofficial motto of the Silicon Valley.
There are many inspiring stories of famous scientists and entrepreneurs, who faced outright rejection or failure before succeeding. However, the words of the Prophet (sa) stand out in this regard who, when asked to forsake his mission, said: "By Allah, if they place the sun on my right hand, and the moon on my left, to make me abandon this course, I would not leave it, until Allah (swt) makes me victorious or I perish therein." (Ibn Ishaq)
Having a regard for others' feeling and emotions is a timeless trait that is inherent in human nature. According to Dr. Laura A. Jana: "Even very young infants are sensitive emotion detectors, able to sense others' emotions even before they can walk or talk". Encourage your children to share their time and possessions with others. Facilitate your teenagers to participate in food drives, collect funds for those in need, and take up other nobles causes. Teach them to derive pleasure out of selfless giving. Allah (swt) states in the Quran: "By no means shall you attain Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, etc., it means here Allah's Reward, i.e. Paradise), unless you spend (in Allah's Cause) of that which you love; and whatever of good you spend, Allah knows it well." (Al-Imran 3:92)
Lastly, while seeking to develop these skills in your child, it is important not to pressurize him or her into becoming someone else. Always appreciate your child's individuality and praise his or her efforts to succeed. None of us is perfectly equipped with all these skills, and it is only through perseverance and constant support that the best traits and abilities are acquired.