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Alicia Blain

21st Century Skills


In today’s USA Today, an article titled:  College offers scholarship for Twitter ‘essay’   written by Luke Kerr-Dineen and Natalie DiBlasio caught my attention.  The University of Iowa held a contest worth $37,000 – the price of a full scholarship to their business school – for prospective students to submit a Twitter entry in place of a second essay.  That means that students would have to get pretty creative with 140 words in order to win the contest.

I thought that was a great example of the type of experimentation that is needed today in both universities and corporations.  As usual, the article highlighted the voice of some detractors that were not in agreement with the experiment.  I find that to be the typical reaction that plagues the leadership in many organizations today.  It’s the need to hold on to the “tried and true” instead of the “trial and error”.

Is it just me or does anyone else question  the intensive focus that is placed on the essay part of the college/MBA applicaiton process by most parents today.  Every one of my Boomer friends who has had a child apply for college has been intimately involved in the application process. Some of them more so than their children. Some have hired professional writers and editors to “review” (read redo) the essays their children prepare.  Most have spent countless hours perfecting the essays.  As Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admission says, this intense focus on the essays has made them “unoriginal and often highly edited”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Doing something creative like the University of Iowa’s MBA program  is doing has 2 advantages:

  1. It gets people comfortable with trial and error.  The University of Iowa had no idea whether this experiment would work or not but you can be assured that going through it will give them a ton of ideas and ways to perfect it the next time or do something different.  They didn’t let the risk of failure stop them.  More universities and companies need to adopt that way of thinking if innovation is going to thrive in the future.
  2. It utilizes 21st Century tools.  Instead of relying on contest tools that were used in the past, the University decided to use the twentysomethings tool of choice to challenge them. After all, these are the tools this generation is comfortable with and will undoubtedly keep using as they get older.  As organizations bring in twentysomethings and begin to tackle the challenge of grooming them to be 21st Century leaders, they will need to get creative in how to employ these tools.  Shutting them down and prohibiting their use may not be the optimum reaction to effectively embracing innovation in the form of new tools.

It’s refreshing to read about how some universities are finding creative ways to deal with the challenge of adapting to the 21st Century.   The article highlighted other creative ways organizations are using social media in contests to help students find funding alternatives for college. It’s a win-win for both the students and the organizations that choose the scary path of experimentation.

What about you?  What new ideas are you trying in the workplace today?  Are you holding on to the tried and true or venturing into the trial and error?  Take a page from the University of Iowa: don’t just think outside the box.  Throw it out and see what new idea takes its place.

Strange question, right?  Well, not really if you think about it.  As Baby Boomers trying to get comfortable texting to our Millennial staff and children, it often appears like we have large, clunky thumbs.  Have you ever looked at how effortlessly Millennials text?  Have you seen a Boomer text?  It can be painful to watch and pretty funny.

And what Boomers write as texts  is even funnier. Well, thanks to the creativity of what I believe is probably an enterprising Millennial, we now have a blog called “When Parents Textwhere we can actually read the wacky texts that Boomers sendThe subtitle under the blog’s name is ” Small Keypad… Old Hands”.  Is that a great description?  I love it!  According to the site, it  “…  is dedicated to the trials and errors that come when a parent handles a cellphone”.  I’m chuckling as I copy that.

Basically, the website is a repository of text messages that Millennials have received from their parents.  They even have a Best of the Month section  & a Favorite section.  Although some of the texts are not that interesting there are some that are absolutely hysterical & clearly show Boomer discomfort in the texting arena.  Sometimes, they show Boomer originality in coming up with new phrases or emoticons.  One mom created a Bowtie emoticon I’m not sure why she created it in the context of the text itself. 

That’s what makes the site amusing.  Another text was from a father & he texted the following:  “This is your father. call me when you get this text message. Do not reply. DAD”   See what I mean?  Very funny stuff. 

As the year winds down and some of us have some free time to spare, check out this funny site and catch a few laughs while you catch the creativity of Millennials.  Like I’ve said many times:  Millennials are not afraid to start their own trends – they don’t think outside the box because they don’t see the box in the first place.  That’s a good way to start 2011.  Throw out the box that limits your ability to see innovation and possibilities…

This past Saturday, I was able to take advantage of the long holiday weekend to get together with some friends that I hadn’t seen for some time. Most of my friends have children who are Millennials so I always feel like I have a living Millennial laboratory everywhere I go.  I never miss an opportunity to listen in or hang out with my friends’ kids because I love getting their perspective. Typically, that perspective is very different than their parents which has always been the case no matter what generation you are a part of.

I was “allowed” to listen in on a conversation my friend’s daughters were having with 4 other friends (boys & girls).   These were older teenagers who were sitting close to where their parents were sitting & commenting on what their parents were saying.  The subject was Black Friday.  One of the teenager’s mother was telling everyone how much fun she had shopping on Black Friday.  Apparently, she & some of her girlfriends made a fun day out of Black Friday.  They all got up early, went out for breakfast, battled the traffic, went into the malls, battled the crowds, bought stuff on sale and spent most of the day in the mall.  When they finished shopping, they all went to a nice restaurant near the mall and enjoyed a nice, leisurely dinner & ended their day with a treat at an ice cream shop located next to the restaurant.  They managed to turn what could have been a pretty hectic event into a casual, fun event that they looked forward to instead of dreading.

As the woman was recounting her adventure, her daughter, Gina,  was rolling her eyes in disbelief.  As her friends laughed, I asked her if she had joined her mom in her Black Friday adventure.  She looked at me with this disgusted face and said ” Are you crazy?  That’s so old fashioned?”  Old fashioned?  When had shopping on Black Friday gotten passe?  Now personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a store on Black Friday because I hate crowds and the discounts are not worth the bother.

So I asked Gina why she thought that was old fashioned.  Like a typical Millennial she said ” Duh, have you heard of this thing called the Internet”?   I quickly learned that Gina & her friends loved to go to the mall but not for shopping although they occasionally would do that.  For them, the mall was a place to socialize & hang out with their friends & eat.  Shopping was done online.  In 30 minutes, Gina and her friends gave me a crash course in online shopping. 

Now I am no slouch when it comes to shopping online but what I discovered with these Millennials was the inside scoop for getting great discounts & alerts for anything you want to buy. I clearly don’t spend as much time online as they do so it made sense that they would know all these great hidden goldmines. They showed me where to go on Facebook to get great discounts, they showed me how to get Web ads that gave even better discounts than going into the physical store, they showed me how to get free shipping for practically anything I wanted to buy and… they showed me how to do this all on their mobile phones.

I always learn the coolest stuff from Millennials.  Last Saturday was no exception.  I couldn’t argue with the convenience and hassle-free nature of shopping online AND getting great discounts to boot.  For those like Gina’s mom that make Black Friday an “experience” they look forward to & enjoy, then shopping online seems like an impersonal way to make purchases.  I can understand that.  But for those of us who hate crowds, don’t have time to go look through endless racks in department stores & hate to walk a mile for a parking space, it’s a pretty good deal.  Especially when you are armed with the social media “insider tools”  that Millennials have at their fingertips to save money & get free shipping.

I was so glad to have seen my friends & even more so to see her kids & their friends.   Now I’m part of Gina’s tribe & I get updates on who is discounting what on Facebook or where to get the latest Web Ad for a coupon.  I’m in with the “in” crowd now!

So move over Black Friday.  I’ll take Cyber Shopping any day of the week… and so will most Millennials… at least the ones that don’t like crowds.

In our current school systems it does but according to James Paul McGee, an expert in games and education, it doesn’t need to be.  There was a great article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine written by reporter Sara Corbett titled “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom”. It showcased a school in NYC called Quest to Learn where digital games are front and center in educating sixth and seventh graders.  The school is the brainchild of a Generation Xer called Katie Salen and a group of game and curriculum designers that are looking at innovative ways to teach children.  According to the article, the school is ” one of a handful of  ’demonstration sites’  for innovative technology-based instructional methods and is part of a larger effort on the city’s part to create and experiment with new models for schools”.

Wow!  Can you believe they used innovation and experimentation in the same sentence as education?  Crazy, huh?  But very encouraging.  For years as I’ve spoken in front of teachers and educators, I have talked about digital games and how educational they can be for children.  Everyone has this incorrect notion that video games are all bad and violent.  Yes, there are some games that are like that but many others that are very educational.   I’ve actually read a lot of  James Paul McGee’s book on the topic but more importantly, I’ve seen it myself.

Although I think that the younger Millennials have taken more to digital games than their older counterparts who are already working,  video games are part of the  Millennial experience.  I’ve said many times that Millennials don’t see failure as a bad thing.  This comes directly from playing video games.  Failure in a video game just means you have to work harder to get to the next level and learn from your mistakes.  Isn’t that a much healthier way of looking at failure than seeing it as a disaster?  As anyone who has become successful at something will tell you, they learned most when they failed at something than when they excelled in it.  How can you innovate if you are afraid to fail?

Yet, most of our educational system is based on the fact that failing is not good.  Then people wonder why kids drop out of school. It’s rewarding to see that a school and it’s teachers are embracing experimentation as a way to break away from 20th Century methods that are frayed at the seams and in direct conflict with living in the 21st Century.   Although it’s too soon to tell what the results of their innovative approach is,  in my book, they’ve already won because they saw a problem and took action.  These teachers were frustrated with what they saw in the educational system today and took a chance to change it.   Experimenting with new concepts and techniques is the only way that educators will forge ahead and bring much needed change to education.

The Millennials in my team showed me that failure was not a disaster.  I had forgotten that. Because in a corporate setting, very much like an educational one, failure is often not an option.  It is not seen as a chance to get better at something or to innovate but rather as something to avoid.  You don’t get a merit increase or yearly bonus if you fail, do you?

But sometimes you need to fail to find innovative solutions to things.  If leaders don’t create an environment where it’s okay to fail, their teams will shy away from trying new things.  Failure is at the very heart of experimentation and we need to find ways to get comfortable with it.  One way to do that is to create an Idea Incubator in your team.  The concept is simple:  give people time to hash out an idea and see what happens.  There aren’t many rules associated with the incubator – the more free flowing and unencumbered, the better. 

What we found when we allowed the Idea Incubator to flourish is that when people are allowed to come up with an idea or a concept and can experiment with it, a lot of good comes out of it.  The idea itself may not lead to anything concrete such as a new product or service but most times, it will lead to a better way of doing something or another idea that does have potential.  The key is to see the process as a way of getting better at something not as failing at something when it doesn’t pan out.   That is a critical component for innovation to thrive in a team.  It’s also critical for success in the 21st Century.

So what about you?  Is failure a disaster or just a way to get better at something?

I ran across this blog today by Carmen Dukes in the Project Interaction Website called ” Developing 21st Century Skills Through Gaming“ . It highlights the fact that the University of Florida (UF) is introducing a course this fall called “21st Century Skills in Starcraft“.  Apparently, the University of Florida is getting a lot of national attention for offering the course.  See this UF Blog written by Peter Zimmerman that talks about the course and why the College of Education decided to offer it. For those of you who may not know, Starcraft is a video game.  Technically, according to Peter Zimmerman, Starcraft is a  “real-time strategy” video game. 

I think it’s awesome that UF is being innovative and strategic in how it teaches 21st Century students.  In all of the speeches I give throughout the country, I always refer to the 5 ingredients that make Millennials unfamiliar to the rest of us, especially, the Baby Boomers.  The 5 ingredients are:

  1. How they see & view technology.  It’s not technology to them but a way of life. They have never known life without it.
  2. They seek diversity.  This is the group that will be the most ethnically and racially diverse. They will be the key contributors in making the US become a minority-majority by 2050.
  3. They are natural collaborators or team players. 
  4. They are empowered.  Their Baby Boomer parents focused a lot of time and attention on them thus making them feel empowered throughout their young lives.
  5. They are experiential.  This is where their fascination with video games comes in.

In my speeches I try to educate the attendees about video games.  Everyone has such a bad impression of them and think they are all violent.  Although there are violent video games, there are many others like Starcraft and Sim City and Revolution and Civilization that are wonderful vehicles to teach such important skills as critical thinking and problem solving in a 21st Century format. I think that teachers, like corporate leaders today, are in a renaissance period when it comes to education.  The techniques and ways schools and universities have taught in the past are not effective and have not kept up with the pace of change and rapid integration of technology.  Teachers today must learn to experiment with different techniques to teach these critical and necessary skills in a way that prepares the students  to live and work in the 21st Century and NOT the 20th or even the 19th Century.

Schools like UF are taking the lead in experimenting with different teaching techniques.  They are modifying their old approach to teaching recognizing that students today will need to work in a very dynamic, global and ever changing world.  Video games, like Starcraft, expose them to that. According to Peter Zimmerman, the students using Starcraft are  ”constantly forced to gather, analyze, and synthesize information from a wide variety of sources and act in a high-pressured fast-paced environment”.  Doesn’t that sound like the corporate environment these future leaders will be leading in?  Isn’t it better to teach critical thinking skills in that environment rather than the more structured one from the past?

I’m sure other progressive and innovative universities are adopting the same practices as UF and we’ll see more experiential type learning in the years to come.  So for those high school teachers preparing students for university courses, this is a sign of what is to come.  It might be a good idea to start experimenting with video games in the high school classrooms to get the students ready for college.

I applaud UF for it’s courage to let go of the status quo and try something new.  They are a good example for all of us, both teachers and leaders, to challenge our existing way of doing things and take a baby step into the unknown.  More than any generation before them, Millennials will be faced with navigating uncharted waters.  It is up to us to furnish them with a roadmap that will help them chart a course into this fast paced, ever changing  future. 

So what about you?  Have you tried your hand at a video game and no, I don’t mean PacMan?  Get your son or daughter to teach you and see a whole new world appear before your eyes.  Who knows?  It might give you some good ideas that you can apply at work.