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May 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 8

Future-Proofing Students

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These seven traits can help students thrive in an uncertain world.

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Instructional StrategiesSocial-emotional learning
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Robots, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality once sounded like science fiction; but they will be a routine part of our students' lives going forward. Drones will deliver purchases. Autonomous cars will replace driving. Jobs will constantly change. This generation will need more than grades and scores to thrive in an automated, accelerated, unpredictable new world. To prepare students for a tech-intensive future, we cannot hold on to 20th-century learning practices. We must reimagine education and cultivate an updated skill set.
Lessons led by caring educators will continue to help students be strong learners and critical thinkers; but human skills will equip them to handle an uncertain world. Which competencies and practices will "future-proof" students—or at least prepare them to the best extent possible?

7 Strengths and 21 Abilities for Future Readiness

For the past decade, I've combed research on the traits most highly correlated with optimizing resilience, mental health, and performance. Rather than a one-dimensional trait, future-readiness comprises seven strengths that I identified while writing Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2021). These strengths are not fixed nor based on scores, IQs, or zip codes, but teachable abilities that can be woven into daily lessons and help prepare kids for life. Thrivers are made, not born.
Let's look at how some schools are approaching this work.

1. Self-Confidence

Abilities: Self-Awareness, Strength Awareness, Finding Purpose

Confidence is the quiet understanding of "who I am" that nurtures inner assuredness and appreciation of one's unique strengths and interests, as well as areas in need of improvement. Confident students are more capable of navigating life and rebounding from setbacks.
The World Economic Forum (2016) estimates that 65 percent of today's children will work in a job that doesn't yet exist. These students will need to continually reinvent themselves to keep up with rapid change. Future success will require that they develop a solid awareness of their assets.
Gallup studied more than 1 million work teams and found that individuals who have daily opportunities to focus on their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general (Rath, 2007). Strength awareness boosts confidence, and confidence increases performance, Gallup confirms.
Studies show that confidence is a key trait recruiters look for in the interview process and it influences who they hire (Dimopoulos, 2020). To build self-confidence early on, schools can have students—starting in kindergarten—keep digital portfolios of their learning progress to help them (and the adults in their lives) recognize their strengths. This tool, which might include curated learning artifacts and self-reflection, guides students in defining their interests, developing new goals, and boosting confidence.

The best leaders are those with empathy: they are willing to listen, learn, and bring out the best in people.

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Michele Borba

Schools might also consider adopting "genius hour," a dedicated time for students to pursue passion projects on topics that pique their interest. Studies find that students are most engaged and in a state of "flow" when activities involve real-world problems, are under their control, and are relevant to their lives (Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Plus, when students are confident in who they are, they tend to be more motivated to take on challenges and learn from their mistakes.

2. Empathy

Abilities: Emotional Literacy, Perspective Taking, Empathic Concern

Empathy is essential to future-proofing because it boosts human traits like trust, creativity, communication, prosocial behaviors, and resilience—traits that will be key in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a period characterized by a "fusion of [rapidly changing] technologies across the physical, digital, and biological worlds" (Schwab, 2016). Empathy allows us to feel with and understand others, setting us apart from the machines we create. Its cultivation will be crucial to successfully navigating life in a world dominated by artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
Empathy gives individuals a job market edge. That's why Forbes (Lau, 2021) urges companies to adopt empathy-building principles and cited them as an essential ingredient for success in the workplace. Jim Collins (2011) attests that the best leaders are those with empathy: they are willing to listen, learn, and bring out the best in people—and so their companies are more likely to thrive.
The good news: empathy is teachable (Borba, 2018). Schools should continue teaching emotional literacy—the gateway to empathy—and social-emotional learning, in combination with daily feeling check-ins. But they should also find ways to strengthen students' perspective-taking abilities. For example, students can retell stories from the point of view of different characters in a book or act out conflicting perspectives in history, current events, or real life.
Collaboration can also be critical in developing empathy. Class meetings, cooperative learning, and instructional techniques like the jigsaw method can help students learn to better understand and respect their peers' diverse opinions. Design thinking can also cultivate empathy. It simulates real-world work and encourages students to collaboratively solve tough challenges with five steps: (1) empathizing to understand the needs of others; (2) defining a problem; (3) ideating; (4) creating a solution and prototyping; and (5) testing and seeking feedback (Nash, 2019). Big Picture Learning, a network of schools also implementing a student-centered learning design, has kids study local issues in advisory groups and then participate in community internships with the support of a mentor.
Practices and programs like these help students expand beyond their usual circle of friends, recognize others' strengths and feelings, and stretch their thinking to "we" instead of "me."

3. Self-Control

Abilities: Attentive Focus, Self-Management, Healthy Decision-Making

Our students will be living in times of unprecedented change, and uncertainty triggers anxiety. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that almost one-third of high school students now struggle with persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2021). COVID-19 exacerbated the mental health crisis to the point that a panel of leading experts recently declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021).
Among the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations was a call for more research on the link between technology and youth mental health. Long before the pandemic hit, 50 percent of teens admitted to "feeling addicted" to their mobile devices; most couldn't focus on assignments for more than two minutes without checking social media (Common Sense Media, 2016). Remote learning only increased students' reliance on technology.
Some schools are devising creative ways to counter attention-depleting forces. In 2015, four high-poverty public schools in San Francisco introduced a twice-daily, 15 minute "quiet time" ritual in which students sit silently or practice mindfulness. This exercise improved student attendance, test scores, and self-regulation (McFadden, Sandler, & Fieldstadt, 2015). Yoga is another practice that helps students manage stress, improve self-control, and focus their attention. One study even showed that yoga improved urban high school students' academic performance and engagement (Hagins & Rundle, 2016).

4. Integrity

Abilities: Moral Awareness, Moral Identity, Ethical Thinking

Students with integrity are true to themselves and honest with others, as well as responsible, hardworking, and resilient—the graduates we need in our brave, new world. Students don't learn integrity through osmosis; it must be intentionally taught, and we have work to do.
Fifty-seven percent of teens agree that "successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating." Yet 92 percent of kids feel "quite pleased" with their ethical standards and conduct; 77 percent even say, "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know" (Soffel, 2016). It's no wonder that a 10-year study found that most high school graduates lack sufficient moral reasoning and have difficulty considering moral problems in their everyday lives (Smith et al., 2011). Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz warns that we are graduating "excellent sheep": brainy but soulless students who lack purpose, moral compasses, and critical thinking abilities (2015).
How can we counter this? Socratic dialogue is one way to help students develop ethical reasoning (Ames Fisher, 2019). I once watched a middle school English teacher in California use the Socratic lesson model with questions drawn from the book The Outsiders. Her rules were clear: "Be respectful, speak clearly, participate a minimum of five times, and come prepared to have a scholarly conversation." For the entire period, her 7th graders collaboratively reflected on and discussed powerful moral issues about inclusion, racism, and equity.
The right service projects can also strengthen integrity. But the experiences must be meaningful and match students' passions or their ethical beliefs (like volunteering at local soup kitchens or marching for a cause). Putting personal concern into ethical action is a powerful strategy for developing integrity and reducing stress, a concept that many Generation Z students seem to understand. Though forced to grow up in fear of becoming victims of gun violence, pandemics, climate change, racism, and financial hardship, they are also considered by many to be the most diverse, inclusive, politically active, and educated generation in history (Della Volpe, 2022). They have found ways to channel their anxieties into courage and compassionate action—the best formula for developing integrity and facing what lies ahead.

Cultivating Integrity

The right service projects can strengthen integrity, but the experiences must match students' passions or their ethical beliefs.

5. Curiosity

Abilities: Curious Mindset, Creative Problem-Solving, Divergent Thinking

Curiosity opens minds and drives kids to continuously learn. If adversity strikes, this strength helps kids stay open to possibilities and find solutions. Curiosity stretches resilience but also builds future readiness. The World Economic Forum (2020) predicts that curiosity and the skills of critical thinking and problem solving will top the list of what kids need for a rapidly evolving employability market. Google seeks to employ "smart creatives"—those who test and find solutions and aren't afraid to fail (Schmidt, 2017). Curiosity also boosts learning: a meta-analysis of 200 studies found that curiosity is as important as intelligence and noted that it is a key determiner in academic performance (Von Stumm et al., 2011), as well as greater engagement and performance at work (Gino, 2018).
Science says challenging lessons and open-ended questions as well as interesting answers encourage curiosity and increase student engagement (Fandakova & Gruber, 2020). In other words, teens are more engaged when they confront topics whose questions and answers make them pause and wonder.
So how can educators boost creative risk-taking in an era of conformity, test-obsession, and safety-consciousness? Teachers might pose brief, daily challenges like: "How many ways can you use a paper clip?" or "How many ways can you create things from a circle?" Students could also work in small groups each day to brainstorm solutions to world problems (like how to stop bullying or climate change) or tinker in a school makerspace.
Some schools and classrooms hold Innovation Days, where students choose a topic that piques their curiosity, study it in groups or independently, and present their discoveries. Similarly, problem-based learning encourages students to select an issue that concerns them, ask critical questions, and create and test prototypes to solve it. Atmospheres that encourage out-of-the box thinking with active engagement will prepare students to thrive in future workplaces.

6. Perseverence

Abilities: Growth Mindset, Goal Setting, Learning from Failure

An uncertain world demands knowing how to adapt and endure. Success in school and life will hinge on personal effort. Students who attribute gains to their inner drive are more creative and resilient than those who think they have no control over outcomes.
A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (2017) found that 100 percent of employers expect employees to have tenacity, professionalism, and a strong work ethic. Parenting trends like helicoptering, snowplowing, and coddling rob kids of their resilience. For this reason, some schools are working to temper parents' overprotective tendencies: Starting in the 3rd grade, for example, Pegasus School in Huntington Beach, California, forbids parents from dropping off forgotten assignments or nonessential items and from escorting their child to the classroom. Other schools are adopting similar policies.
External rewards also reduce grit, which is why some educators are cutting back on the endless trophies and stickers. Motivation is an inside-out process. Focusing on efforts, not end results, helps build grit, agency, and an "I got this" attitude that kids need to handle challenges. We must continue helping students develop growth mindsets. But how?
More than 1,000 studies have shown that setting high and specific goals is linked to increased task performance, persistence, and motivation (Hopfner & Keith, 2021). I'll never forget observing a high school in Dunedin, New Zealand, where students started each day reflecting on how they would improve their subject performance. They identified an academic area or skill, wrote down a specific goal, shared their plan with a learning partner to make sure it was attainable, refined it if needed, and then tracked their progress.
Teaching skills like goal setting, staying on task, managing time, and handling unpredictable obstacles helps stretch perseverance. One study of undergraduates found that self-directedness was the most important factor in employment readiness (Kim & Kim, 2018).

7. Optimism

Abilities: Optimistic Thinking, Assertive Communication, Hope

Optimistic kids view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to succeed in school and life. Pessimists see challenges as permanent, like cement blocks that are impossible to move, and so they are more likely to quit. A review of 19 studies found that teaching students how to improve their outlook on life can protect them against depression, increase their life satisfaction and resilience, and improve their learning power (American Psychological Association, 2009). But this seventh strength also boosts work productivity and engagement. A survey of more than 11,000 employees found that those with highly optimistic mindsets were 103 percent more likely to love their jobs than those with low levels of optimism (Murphy, 2020).
There is an urgency for learning optimism: as noted earlier, one in three high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Instant access to disturbing news takes a toll. "A lot of bad stuff keeps happening and makes us think that the world is scary," a freshman from San Diego told me. Pandemics, climate change, natural disasters, and other unpredictable events lie ahead—which is why optimism is crucial for future-proofing. Feeling in control reduces helplessness.
To boost optimism, some schools include stories of everyday kids bettering the world during morning announcements. At students' request, Garden City High School in New York added a TV monitor inside its entrance to display video clips of inspiring local and national news. Several teens told me how much they looked forward to seeing the good news as they walked into their school each morning. One teen explained: "The images keep us hopeful about our future."
Besides building integrity, relevant, student-driven service projects can also increase optimism. But educators may want to follow the advice of a teen from Glenbard West High School in Illinois: "Kids should care about the project. [It should] not be something that just looks good on a résumé."

The Path Forward

The world is changing and so must our instructional practices. Our moral obligation is to equip this generation with the content and abilities they will need to handle an unpredictable future and thrive. Doing so may be our most important educational task.

Reflect and Discuss

➛ Why do you think human skills will be so crucial to students' future success?

➛ Which of these seven traits is particularly lacking in your school or classroom? What practical steps could you and/or your team take to boost students' skills in this area?

➛ Choose one or two traits to focus on in your next PD session: How might the adults in your building better model these traits?


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021, October 19). AAP-AACAP-CHA declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

American Psychological Association. (2009). Teaching resilience, sense of purpose in schools can prevent depression, anxiety, and improve grades, according to research.

Ames Fisher, C. (2019). The power of the Socratic classroom. Sienna Books.

Borba, M. (2018). Nine competencies for teaching empathy. Educational Leadership76(2).

Collins, J. (2011). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don't. Harper Business.

Common Sense Media. (2016, May 3). New report finds teens feel addicted to their phones, causing tension at home.

Della Volpe, J. (2022). Fight: How Gen Z is channeling their fear and passion to save America. St. Martin's Press.

Deresiewicz, W. (2015). Excellent sheep: The miseducation of the American elite and the way back to a meaningful life. Free Press.

Dimopoulos, A. (2020). Applicant's self-confidence influence in employment interview process according to recruiters perceptions. International Journal of Human Resource Studies10(2).

Fandakova, Y., & Gruber, M. J. (2020). States of curiosity and interest enhance memory differently in adolescents and in children. Developmental Science.

Gino, F. (2018, September-October). The business case for curiosity. Harvard Business Review.

Hagins, M., & Rundle, A. (2016). Yoga improves academic performance in urban high school students compared to physical education: A randomized controlled trial. Mind, Brain & Education10(2).

Hopfner, J., & Keith, N. (2021, September 21). Goal missed, self hit: Goal-setting, goal-failure, and their affective, motivational, and behavioral consequences. Frontiers in Psychology.

Kim, H. Y., & Kim, G. U. (2018). The effect of self-directedness in learning on employment readiness of undergraduates in South Korea. Journal of Education and Learning7(3).

Lau, Y. (2021, January 20). Soft skills are essential to the future of work. Forbes.

McFadden, C., Sandler, T., & Fieldstadt, E. (2015, January 1). San Francisco schools transformed by the power of meditation. NBC News.

Murphy, M. (2020, February 26). Optimistic employees are 103% more inspired to give their best effort at work, new data reveals. Forbes.

Nash, J. B. (2019). Design thinking in schools: A leader's guide for collaborating for improvement. Harvard Education Press.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2017, December 11). Employers rate career competencies, new hire proficiency.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0 from Gallup: Discover your CliftonStrengths. Gallup Press.

Schmidt, E., & Rosenberg, J. (2017). How Google works. Grand Central.

Schwab, K. (2016). The fourth industrial revolution. World Economic Forum.

Shernoff, D., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow in schools. In R. Gilman, E. S. Heubner, & M. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 131–145). Routledge.

Smith, C., Christoffersen, K. Davison, H., & Herzog, P. S. (2011). Lost in transition: The dark side of emerging adulthood. Oxford University Press.

Soffel, J. (2016, March 10). Ten 21st century skills every student needs. World Economic Forum.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2021, December 7). U.S. surgeon general issues advisory on youth mental health crisis further exposed by COVID-19 pandemic.

Von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(6), 574–588.

World Economic Forum. (2016, January). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Global Challenge Insight Report.

World Economic Forum. (2020, January 14). Schools of the future: Defining new models of education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Michele Borba is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and international speaker to educators and parents. She is the author of 24 books, including UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (Touchstone, 2017) and Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021).

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