Sunday, June 03, 2007

21st Century Business Panel

The teachers in my staff development had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with eight leaders from the business world last Thursday. Throughout our discussions over the last few years, one of our worries has been whether some of the changes we have been talking about might actually do a disservice to our students (either short term or long term) in terms of them being successful at the college level or in the world of work. In other words, what if we’re really, really wrong?

Now, before I go on, let me state clearly that I don’t believe that all we are about in education is preparing future employees. I want our students to be successful human beings – successful in their personal lives, successful in their work, successful citizens in the 21st century. To be both personally and professionally productive, to be a contributor to their communities and the world, and – yes – to be happy. But I do certainly think that part of that is helping prepare them to be successful in the world of work, so we thought having a conversation with some folks from the business world – getting their perspective on some of the ideas we’ve been talking about – would be very valuable.

As fate would have it, Kelly Dignan is an entrepreneur who was doing some volunteer work through Junior Achievement in one of our Business classes. She also stumbled across The Fischbowl and realized that I was talking about the school she was volunteering in. She wrote a nice email about the blog and then made the mistake of closing with "If there’s ever anything I can do for you . . ." I wrote back and pitched the idea of getting some of her colleagues/contacts together to speak with the teachers in our staff development about what they felt students needed to be successful in the 21st century. She thought it was a great idea and ran with it.

In addition to forty-four or so of the teachers in our staff development, we had our district Director of Career and Technical Education, our district CIO, our Superintendent, and four of our five school board members. (Umm, yeah, I was a little nervous.) Now, it turns out Kelly knows a lot of folks in a variety of industries, and she assembled the following panel for us:

Pete Dignan – President of ProtoTest.

Carla Donelson – Former Vice President & General Counsel of Verio.

Vicki Scharnhorst - Chief Operating Officer of MWH Federal Services.

Karyn German – VP of Product Development and Support at NewsGator. (Karyn couldn’t make it, but submitted written responses.)

De McQueenColorado Business Bank.

Chris Onan - Managing Director with Appian Ventures.

Nancy Sauer – President of D2Xchange.

Chris Scherpenseel – Former President and GM, FRx Software Corporation.

Moderator: Kelly Dignan – Director of Pursue U.

We then provided the panel with some hastily composed guiding questions that they could be thinking about before they came.
  1. What skills/abilities do you feel students need to have to be successful in the 21st century as employees?

  2. What skills/abilities do students need to have to be successful citizens in a globally-interconnected world?

  3. Looking at the students you currently see entering the workforce, what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses?

  4. There is a lot of discussion in K-12 education about the importance of content knowledge (knowing a lot of “stuff” about math, science, social studies, language arts, etc.) versus the importance of learning skills and students being able to construct their own understanding of material/ideas that are new to them (being able to “learn how to learn”). What are your thoughts regarding how much we should focus on content knowledge versus focusing on students’ ability to learn/adapt/grow?

  5. There is also a lot of discussion in education on the tension between being successful as an individual and being successful as part of a group or team. We’d like to hear more about your thoughts regarding this.

  6. Tell us a little bit about any changes you foresee for the workplace in the next 5-15 years (and beyond). What do you think this means for students currently in high school and for K-12 education in general?

  7. What types of technologies should our students be proficient at using?

  8. What was the best learning/educational experience you have had? Why?

  9. If you were going to design a 21st century high school from the ground up, what are three key features you would include? These features could be physical (building features), pedagogical (teaching techniques/approach), structural (curriculum, schedule, etc.), technological (specific tools/software/experiences), etc.

  10. When we're done today, what's the one most important "take-away" message you'd like our teachers to hear?
While we knew we wouldn’t be able to get through all these questions in two hours, we wanted to give them an idea of the questions we were wondering about. As it turned out, we probably only talked about three or four of the questions, but that was because the conversation was so good. They started out talking, we asked some follow-up/clarifying questions, and they asked us some questions back. In other words, it turned into a conversation instead of a presentation (well, with 60 or so people it wasn’t quite a conversation, but it was still pretty good give and take). Here are some of the highlights (these are not direct quotes, but close - from my notes):
  • A core value is to learn something from every situation.

  • People must have a willingness to learn new ways of doing things, to study best practices, and to evolve their thinking – not to think that the way they’ve always done things is the only or best way.

  • Both written and verbal communication skills are essential for everyone.

  • Teamwork and collaboration are key. Everyone needs to be able to take a leadership role at the appropriate times, as well as be a contributor at the appropriate times.

  • Acceptance of differences/diversity is important. Everything is global and folks need to work hard to understand different countries and cultures – as well as the cultures of other companies. Norms are very important.

  • They need to have the ability to make a plan with very little guidance – there’s not a rubric for everything. They need to take the initiative and be producers.

  • There is no one right answer – there are lots of answers, some are better than others – and critical thinking skills are paramount.

  • Creative thinking and flexibility is key – they need to be problem solvers, not just memorizers and regurgitators.

  • Having said that, a strong foundation in the basics is still necessary - but it’s necessary, not sufficient, to be successful in the 21st century. We need to ask them to do more – not more of the same, but more meaningful, purposeful, productive work.

  • They need to de-center. They need to lose the sense of entitlement - “Ask not what your employer can do for you . . .” Also, community service is key. Understanding and taking an active role in helping others.

  • All students should have a minor in leadership.

  • All students should have lots of experience working in small groups to solve meaningful problems. They shouldn’t focus on the final answer, but how you get there. An inquiry approach, with students always looking ahead one step. Don’t just think about the current step as you’re making a decision, but what’s going to be next when you solve this problem. As you’re working on anything, come up with the next set of questions.

  • Listening is essential.

  • They need an awareness that they are part of a global economy – work can be done anywhere, ideas flow freely around the world instantly. Work will move to where it will be done most efficiently, and being able to use technology effectively is a big part of that.

  • Technology and the Internet are everywhere – they should be everywhere for students.

  • Students need to find their passion and learn all they can about it.

  • Cross-training is also important – understanding all the roles in a company/organization/problem so that they have the big picture.

  • Healthy competition is important, we all have to compete with companies around the world. But collaboration is more important, we need to work as a team within our company. They need to move from “I” to “we.” Everything is done as part of a team, both within a company and across companies working together on a particular project. Those that are only successful as individuals are not successful in any of their companies. [A follow-up question was – where can those individual folks be successful? Answer: Sales.]

  • Students need more self-knowledge, to be reflective, and to know their own strengths and weaknesses. They should play to their strengths. Yes, they should try to overcome their weaknesses, but they should really leverage their strengths, find their passion.

  • Parents have a responsibility to teach their kids respect and expose their children to lots of different and varied experiences – we need to pressure them to step up. [As you might imagine, the teachers agreed with this one. While I don’t disagree, the fact remains that we still need to meet the needs of the students we have – whether their parents have “stepped up” or not.]

  • We need to focus on life skills for students, on creating an environment where students can do their best work. Students need to learn by doing – applied learning, internships.

  • There’s a world of ideas out there – you need to pursue them with passion.
I'm sure there were things I missed, but this is most of what I wrote down. While none of this was earth shattering or particularly surprising, it was good to hear that what they thought was necessary for our students to be successful in the 21st century pretty much matched up to what we think – and have been working on. The panelists were all very passionate not only about what they do, but about education and giving back. It was good to see how much they cared about education, and how much they appreciated our efforts.

Overall, it was a very worthwhile two hours. I, of course, would’ve loved for it to continue for about another five, but we did have small group and then large group discussion among our teachers afterward. They all found it informative and engaging, and the feedback from the panelists (and the school board members) was very positive as well. We will now be thinking about ways to bring some or all of these folks back again, to have further conversations with our teachers and hopefully to come into some classrooms and have conversations with our students as well. Ultimately, they are the ones that need to hear this the most.


  1. Great discussion and post! I am really enjoying the various end of the year reflections and direction setting posts that seem to be popping up. Patrick over at Chalkdust had a great post too.
    I am slightly jealous...I want to know how you all find the think time to post with this depth during this crazy time of year! In any case I have marked your post for further reflection.

  2. Passion, meaning - Good stuff. Connecting students to the world. Helping them to see the world more clearly. Helping students to find their voice. As we implement PLCs, we must be sure that our these higher level goals are identified within our essential learnings. Our PLCs, our essential learnings, our grading practices, our push for data, must support us in our quest to make learning meaningful. If we become too obsessed with data BEFORE we carefully define our understandings that are essential we tend to assess what is easily measured rather than assess whta we truly care about most.

    Tony Winger

  3. Hi there,
    I just came across this site via and found it very inspiring - both the discussion about the meeting and the general concept of a joint teachers' blog. Congratulations and carry on the good work,
    Peter, Berlin, Germany

  4. Great post Karl. Thank you for posting the "minutes" as I was only able frantically scribble down about half of that!

    I will reread this throughout the summer to remind myself of the value that this 21C session had.

    Like Barbara DO you do it?


  5. Incredible. This is exactly what more systems need to be doing. It's good to hear some validation of the concepts we have been trying to convey. We talk about business needs and 21st century workplaces, but speaking directly with leaders is something our agency has yet to do. We will now. Keep up the excellent posts - I'll continually impressed by them.