By Michael Shank

As a university professor who has worked for educators in the U.S. Congress and was raised by high school teachers, I’m constantly thinking about the education system and how best to equip the next generation of leaders. I’ve also been interviewing educators throughout Vermont, as schools carefully and cautiously return mid-pandemic, to get a sense of the direction we should go next. Their ideas matched my own concerns regarding critical ingredients missing in the current state curricula. If we don’t respond to the needs described below via training and skills-building, we will miss a huge opportunity to build the necessary foundation for Vermont’s student body to be successful in life and constructive contributors to our society. And this year’s escalated anxiety — stirred by politics, pandemic and protests — makes this work even more timely.

Every semester I teach, I’m always taken aback that my graduate students often lack the skills necessary to succeed in life — skills in communicating effectively, handling conflict constructively, thinking critically and engaging civically. That’s an oversight of the educational system. Not only is a degree less valuable than it once was, in terms of market value and employability, but that degree is also inadequately equipping our students.

Additionally, as it becomes commonplace to bully online and offline, accept anything shared online as “fact,” avoid genuine dialogue and combatively engage instead, disengage from the public policymaking process, and refuse to view the world from someone else’s perspective, it’s becoming more apparent that the skills needed to counteract these tendencies and trends were never instilled in the first place.

Setting up our students for success, then, requires a doubling down on at least five fronts, for starters: skills-building in conflict transformation and resolution, critical thinking, interpersonal and professional communication, civic engagement and compassion.

How’s the Vermont school system doing on these fronts? While there are differences and disparities throughout the state, one educator in Rutland County noted that we’re at a pivotal moment and on the cusp of a major shift in focus towards more transferable skills. According to the Vermont Agency of Education, transferable skills are clear and effective communication, creative and practical problem-solving, informed and integrative thinking, self-directed learning, and responsible and involved citizenship.

This essential skills-building is taking a front seat in the state’s educational standards process and directives, which is excellent and exactly what’s needed, though it’s still left to the discretion of each educator to integrate. Additionally, the practice of “trickle down” training that’s often provided in schools to accompany shifts in programmatic focus, where a few people go to a conference and “bring their learning back,” isn’t effective. Ultimately, schools need more money and time for systematic and coherent schoolwide skills-building — for administrators and administrative staff, teachers, paraeducators, mental health staff, substitute teachers, school board members and more (i.e., any adult that regularly works in the school) — if we want the transferable skills initiative to have real impact. Families and neighborhoods will benefit from that skills-build as well, since that’s where learning is modeled and reinforced, so this should be a community-wide agenda.

In short, if we want our students to develop these key skills for success — we need the state to formally give local communities, schools and teachers the resources necessary to make it happen and set explicit expectations for this work.

Take conflict skills, for example. Several Vermont school districts recently received a state grant to explore and implement restorative practices with support from the statewide Restorative Approaches Collaborative. This is a good move. Conflict is common in the classroom. Practices to proactively address school-based conflict and restore the relationship are not. And the success of similar programs is proven. Canadian schools, which have led in this space, have shown that peer mediation programs successfully resolved 90% of the conflicts and that student mediation programs reduced physically aggressive playground behavior by 51% to 65%. That’s a significant reduction. Not only are these practices useful for making classrooms and playgrounds safer and more conducive to learning, but they set up students for success in the adult world when resolving conflict and restoring broken personal or professional relationships. On a personal level, these skills are helpful on social media, for example, where de-escalatory tactics are needed now more than ever, but also professionally when resolving common workplace disputes. This is why they’re called transferable skills; the application across settings and lifelong benefits are clear.

On critical thinking skills, the need also couldn’t be greater. The national frenzy around whether something is fact or fiction and the propensity of politicos to push unquestioned or unverified agendas shows how in-demand critical thinking is. When I teach graduate courses and students fail to back up their assertions with good data, you bet I push them to show a legitimate source for every assertion. That training can start much younger, helping young students to poke and prod for proof and relentlessly challenge the system. That’s not always encouraged in the classroom, however (speaking from experience here). It takes a confident teacher and administration to embrace student-led change. But if we want our students to enter the media-consuming world with a critical lens, always looking for solid sources to better inform and back up any assertion, then we need to support informed thinking early.

On communication skills, the need for their strengthening is clearly evident. We know the digital world has undermined our ability to have constructive in-person conversations and experience the kind of socio-emotional feedback that only comes from face-to-face interaction, a trend worsened by COVID-19’s social distancing. That’s a given and something teachers struggle with every day. The competition from the smartphone is fierce, and social media have made it easy to communicate impersonally or, worse, antagonistically. It’s not impossible to reverse with rigorous workshopping and will require that curricula prioritize communication skills-building versus the assumption that they’ll implicitly get focus within other school course work. Unless interpersonal communication skills are prioritized, they won’t improve, which is why my local school district is rolling out a districtwide, social-emotional curriculum, to address these very needs.

On civic engagement, we are hurting, too. There’s no statewide curriculum for Vermont’s “global citizenship” content area, for example, and whether or not the latest Black Lives Matter protest gets incorporated into social sciences curricula — and contextualized by history — is left up to local discretion. A weak connection between our current lived reality and the school curriculum can leave students uninspired to change that reality and engage civically. In Vermont, we’re approaching a problematic transition if we don’t tee up the next generation to serve in our stead — as select board members, town managers, planning commissioners and more. There’s a strong need to embed civic engagement in the classroom early, positively incentivize it and build mentorships and apprenticeships for youth within all aspects of public service in Vermont. Unless those relationships are established now, in each town and city throughout Vermont, we could face more attrition and, over time, less engagement. Let’s start building a mentor corps and transfer the generations-worth of expertise to the emerging leadership — being careful to translate the opportunity in ways that appeal to this new generation of student leaders. It’s possible.

On compassion, this is the most difficult nut to crack. Adult behavioral change is tough. People often prefer the status quo, unless a change of heart and mind is motivated by someone in their familial web, a near-death experience, or an extended immersion in a new culture or context. And that’s rare. However, if empathy is built early, then perspective-taking becomes more possible, the mind more adaptable, and the heart more flexible — attributes that are helpful in these increasingly uncertain times. So in addition to the district-wide addition of social-emotional curriculum, let’s add a service corps focused on helping those in need and make it a part of the school curriculum. This is something I grew up doing as a young Mennonite, and I quickly learned to view the world through someone else’s eyes. Getting our students into public service roles early, while helping those in need in our community, could do wonders for cultivating compassion.

This all may sound too soft for some. But it is the essential stuff on which all successful personal and professional environments depend. It’s time Vermont’s Agency of Education supported this work with the rigor and resources it deserves. Talk about transferability. This is the stuff that gets you hired because you communicated flawlessly during an interview, keeps you employed because you know how to manage workplace conflict, saves a relationship because you know how to understand a partner’s pain, or transforms a community because you’re actively involved in leading it. Let’s make sure our students are set up for success. The world needs them now more than ever.

Michael Shank lives in Brandon and teaches graduate studies at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.