This Might Be the Most Important Job Skill for 21st-Century Students—But Too Few Are Learning It

With employers putting more and more emphasis on ‘global empathy,’ here are five keys to empowering students to understand and collaborate with their peers around the world.

By Dr. Ian Jamison

In survey after survey, employers cite teamwork as one of the skills they most desire among new recruits. And as companies and organizations become increasingly global—hiring and doing business with people from all over the world, who embrace a wide range of cultures, faiths, and traditions—working well as a team means being able to navigate these differences successfully.

The ability to work effectively with others to make decisions and solve problems was identified as the most important skill for today’s employees in a 2014 survey of U.S. hiring managers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Similarly, in a 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit survey sponsored by Google, employers listed problem-solving (50 per cent), teamwork (35 per cent), and communication (32 per cent) as the most critical skills for their employees to possess.

“Communication and collaboration are essential in a list of 21st-century skills. So much of work in the future will require things to be done across boundaries,” said Sean Rush, the president and chief executive officer of JA Worldwide.

However, in the same survey, just 34 per cent of executives said they were satisfied with the skills young people brought with them into the workplace. In other words, too few students are actually learning effective teamwork skills.

What Does Effective Teamwork Mean on a Global Scale?

In today’s increasingly global society, teamwork requires appreciating diversity and respecting the beliefs and opinions of those who think, act, and believe differently than us.

In the classroom or in the boardroom, millennials are highly likely to encounter people from different races, ethnicities, and religions at some point. How they interact with their peers from other walks of life could determine how successful they are in their own careers. More importantly, it could shape the future of our society at large. Therefore, the ability to understand and respect others who are different—often referred to as “global empathy”—has become a critical job and life skill.

Because schools and workplaces are more diverse than ever, it’s never too soon for students to learn global empathy. This is one of the key aims of Generation Global, a worldwide education project: to foster tolerance for a range of beliefs and traditions, and to avoid conflict and misunderstanding around different religions and cultures.

How Do We Get There?

Students should be able to have open and honest conversations with others who are different, without those conversations devolving into discord. The most powerful way we can teach students global empathy is to help them engage in conversations with people their own age who come from different backgrounds.

In Generation Global’s work with schools connecting classrooms around the world, the process begins by making sure that students understand what effective dialogue is and what it requires. In a debate, there is a winner and a loser; in a dialogue, however, there are two winners. I learn from you; you learn from me. We may compromise or agree to differ.

Effective dialogue requires five skills:

  • Global communication. When students discuss their experiences and ideas with others who might not share their background, or speak English as a first language, they should focus on clarity and simplicity—avoiding any jargon, slang, or cultural assumptions.
  • Active listening. We listen with more than our ears. We also show our attention with our eyes and bodies, and in how we react to each other. Most importantly, we are showing the other person that we value and respect his or her ideas—we aren’t just waiting to share our own points of view.
  • Critical thinking. Students should be able to identify assumptions, biases, and whether some arguments are more valid and comprehensively supported than others. Critical thinking empowers students to analyze information, reflect on its sources, and make informed and rational judgments.
  • Questioning. Good questions are those that help to enrich our understanding. Good questions don’t just provide more information but enable students to dive into the experience of other people and begin to appreciate and understand how they see the world—and why.
  • Reflection. Students should be given the space and time to reflect on what they’ve learned from others, and the impact this has made on their own thinking.

Creating Opportunities for Dialogue

Conversations should take place in a safe space with clearly articulated rules. Generation Global’s trained moderators—and the training we offer teachers—help ensure that both sides of any dialogue have a positive and productive experience.

Because technology offers a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to connect students with their peers in other countries, it can help foster global dialogue. Generation Global offers a free platform and curriculum for connecting students online and helping them learn effective communication skills. Students learn how to respect others’ identities, discover what influences them and others, and build skills to analyze information and evaluate its merit.

Employers have made it clear that teamwork is one of their most desired traits among workers. We must ensure that today’s students are equipped with the empathy and experience they need to excel in teamwork in any situation.

Dr. Ian Jamison is Head of Education at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. An experienced trainer, Ian trains teachers around the world on the Generation Global’s pedagogy of dialogue, working in a number of challenging environments. He is an advocate of the power of dialogue for empowering people to address challenges, build understanding, and positively transform societies. Ian taught Religious Education for 20 years, and has experience of subject leadership in a number of schools, including Head of Religious Education. He won the Guardian Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in 2007. You can follow Generation Global on Twitter @Gen_Global.

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