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Who would we be, if we could?

As the events of the last few weeks unfold, we’ve had to examine how we do our work and decide on a new normal. We have had to enact plans to keep ourselves safe and devise creative solutions to keep moving forward. More than ever, it is important to reflect on how we prepare youth for the vastly different landscape of the future. In this post, I talk about preparing youth for the future of work and how it can start with a safe and supportive environment for learning and how that can be modeled in the workplace as well.

The future of work

Recently, I was listening to a podcast titled The Culture Gap. The host, Daniel Forrester, interviews author and speaker Heather McGowan about creating a culture of learning in the workplace and preparing youth and young adults for the future of work.

McGowan’s thinking unfolds like this: Work is different now than it ever has been. New jobs appear in all fields each day that never existed before. As a result, preparing youth for the future can be difficult. Further, in the past, workforce preparation has been routine and predictable. Although the advent of technology has changed how we live and work now, it has not had as profound an impact on the ways we prepare for what will come.

According to McGowan, change is also approaching faster than ever. Where before we may have observed a more linear change, now it is exponential. She uses the example of the iPhone. Each passing year, a new version of the device is released with more sweeping changes from model to model than ever before. You can also consider Netflix, who two decades ago was renting DVDs and now churns out ongoing new content. Before, we were taking into account the “speed of what’s happening,” but now we may need to consider “the speed of what’s going to happen.”

So, how can we prepare?

Our current system is strong at providing scores, ranks, and performance thresholds. However, this leads to questions such as, “What are you good at?” or “What are you bad at?” As we know, inquiries such as these can divert or restrict our thinking.

Instead, McGowan advocates for the development of “uniquely human skills” (e.g., curiosity, creativity, divergent thinking, communication, empathy) because these are irreplaceable by technology. Further, they’re dynamic qualities: adapting over time in response to the environment.

In the workplace, knowing how to self-direct, collaborate, communicate and problem solve are crucial skills. It is not surprising that a growing interest in project- or work-based learning in schools necessitates the development of these skills, as well.

Additionally, research has highlighted the importance of developing social-emotional skills. Students in schools that focus on social emotional development have higher grades, fewer absences, and fewer disciplinary problems. Additional research on social emotional learning indicate that students who participate in social skills curricula may show improved academic achievement.

Can we teach these skills in our current system?

As we know, schools who seek to break down the “industrial model” and prepare students for the future will need to change the ways they think and work. Profound shifts in mindset are at the core of this change process.

One of my current roles at MI is the Safe and Supportive Schools Technical Assistance Center project. We support districts and schools who are working to improve student engagement and promote a positive school climate. Some commonalities of practice include social emotional learning, restorative practices, trauma-informed approaches, mental health, parent engagement, student leadership, and culturally responsive frameworks.

Often, we work with schools to navigate the complexities of shifting staff mindset. For example, a basic tenet of restoratives practices is a priority on building and maintaining healthy relationships. Growing our restorative skills may also mean contradicting old ways of responding to challenging behavior. Punitive consequences and exclusionary discipline practices can harm relationships, but also provide a feeling of fairness (or even safety).

If education exudes routine and predictability, to disrupt our ways of seeing the world will feel unexpected and uncomfortable. To get anywhere, we must learn, and learning means vulnerability. A daily lesson for me is that it’s often not the practices that pose the most difficulty but creating spaces in which they are practical.

What do those “spaces” look like?

Although McGowan examines the school’s role in workforce preparation, much of her work is with companies. As a speaker and presenter, she works closely with those in leadership positions who seek to grow their business and better support their teams.

McGowan shares two important qualities of the workplace environment: psychological safety and cognitive diversity.

Author and Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.” In her research, she explores how we manage interpersonal risk at work. In environments that are psychologically safe, a person is not afraid to take a risk for fear of failing or making mistakes. Workplaces with high psychological safety value collaborative problem solving, asking for help, respect, and authenticity. When combined with high standards, psychological safety can foster an environment conducive to learning and high performance. Low psychological safety may lead to indifference or feelings of anxiety. If you’re looking for a deep dive into what this looks like in the workplace, I recommend Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, & Growth.

Leaders looking to build psychological safety can hold space for team-members as they learn from mistakes, offer support when needed, and celebrate and show appreciation (See also: our #shoutouts channel on Slack!). In environments like this, you might hear phrases like “I don’t know,” “I need help,” “I made a mistake,” or “I’m sorry.” You might also hear responses such as “What can I do to help?” “What are you up against?” “What are your concerns?” “Nice work!”

Safety of expression is essential in teams whose strength is generating multiple avenues of thought. Cognitive diversity refers to the differing “beliefs, thinking styles, knowledge, values, assumptions, and preferences held by the members within a team.”[1] Teams who are cognitively diverse value and give voice to different perspectives. Further, they may support multiple modalities of learning, processing information, and communication.

Teams such as these derive strength in their collective knowledge and participate in more effective decision-making and innovation as a result. Still, there are factors that can moderate the impact of cognitive diversity. For example, the impact on staff motivation and creativity is influenced by leadership qualities. Leaders who inspire a common vision and purpose may direct teams who are invested in collective growth. Further, organizations should aim to engage different perspectives at all stages and provide the right information to support informed decision-making.

Ultimately, we strive for this: “When leaders highly encourage employees to focus on the good of the team and organization and stimulate them intellectually, we expect that employees will be more likely to enjoy working with people who have different knowledge and views, and thus produce more creative ideas.”[2]

Albeit simple, the most poignant of McGowan’s points (to me) is, “We need a foundation in an agile learning mindset—the agency to understand that learning is your responsibility, a focus on developing—to the best of your ability—your uniquely human skills…and a real understanding of how businesses create value and how you personally create that value every day in what you do.”[3]

According to McGowan, the future of work means a preparedness to engage in ongoing learning; to leverage learning opportunities, and to do so consistently and earnestly throughout our lives. As I reflect on how we might approach our work in the coming months, this is exactly what we must be prepared to do.

Reminders and takeaways

In the short time I’ve been here at MI, I’ve learned in small and big ways. This month, I invite everyone to think about fostering environments for growth and change. Even if you already do this, how can you expand on your current practice? Who would you be, if you could?

Here’s a few ideas from what I’m working on:

  • Ask the right questions. How do you define your purpose? What is your passion? What are your skills? How can you best apply your skills?

  • Cultivate self-awareness around your social-emotional skills and needs as a learner and colleague. When goal setting, consider expanding how you communicate, engage creatively, and hold space for new or different ideas.

  • Make learning integral to work. Set aside a specific time in your schedule to read new materials and resources. Take notes – a simple, but effective and low-maintenance way to capture growth.

  • Get comfortable with discomfort. Sit with the idea that learning is tough. Reflect on an experience recently that was uncomfortable or difficult. Reflect, dig deep, and get closer to the root cause of this discomfort. Ask: What did you learn?

  • Lift as you climb. Operate as a team. Avoid placing the most attention on individual contributions. Rather, focus on how our work can strengthen and support each other’s paths to professional development.

Heather McGowan’s projects:


Additional reading, if you’re interested:

Bai, Y., Lin, L., Ping Li, P. (2016). How to enable employee creativity in a team context: a cross-level mediating process of transformational leadership. Journal of Business Research, 69, 3240-3250.

Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: a systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27, p. 521-535.

Padamsee, X. & Crowe, B. (2017). Unrealized impact: the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Promise54,

Wang, X., Kim, T., Lee, D. (2016). Cognitive diversity and team creativity: effects of team intrinsic motivation and transformational leadership. Journal of Business Research, 69, 3231-3239.


Halley Eacker is a Senior Staff Developer at Measurement Incorporated. Please visit this website for a description of our programs and services.


[1] Liao & Long (2016) p. 217 [2] Wang, Kim, & Lee (2016) p. 3232

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