Raising brilliant children means acknowledging and reimagining the aspects of the education system that don’t work. What’s less obvious is the need to change ourselves in order to be better educators, coaches, and parents. In Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek reject an education model in which children are treated as empty vessels to be filled with (and tested on) content. Unsurprisingly, such a model encourages passivity in both kids and their caretakers while driving up everyone’s stress levels as schools and parents compete for an outdated vision of success. “Business leaders … are looking for thinkers and problem solvers, not fact grinders,” Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek remind us.
But how can kids learn to innovate while they labor over worksheets and cram for standardized tests?
In place of a “fill-in-the-blank” education, the authors propose a set of 21st-century skills that may help kids become relevant and fulfilled global citizens: the 6 Cs, or collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. The 6 Cs apply to everyone, from infants to their great-grandparents. In fact, in each chapter pertaining to one of the 6 Cs, the authors outline children’s developmental milestones (for example, before learning to collaborate, toddlers engage in parallel play) and describe “real-world” examples in which adults got the C wrong or right. Take Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, who shoved an employee instead of using her verbal communication skills, or Eleanor Roosevelt, who had the confidence to transcend the typical First Lady mold and become an outspoken activist.
These comparisons may help adults empathize with their kids and acknowledge that it’s not just children who may be struggling to measure up. Also, anxious parents sometimes look for turnkey solutions, like the “right” preschool to prepare their kids for an Ivy League college, and forget that important soft skills, like confidence, are often honed outside a traditional learning environment. While content can be crammed, kids can’t learn the power of collaboration when they work individually at their desks. And children discouraged from questioning what they are taught may not develop the critical thinking necessary to, say, challenge fake news.
Of course, these ingredients for 21st-century success are hardly new. Fact recall and test-taking skills are insufficient not just because anyone can look up answers on a smart phone; information has only ever been as useful as the ability to apply it toward a larger goal, which has always required skills beyond rote learning. However, as jobs for “knowledge workers” proliferate while other industries die, it will become increasingly important for all children to master the 6 Cs to prepare for career paths that likely don’t exist yet.
Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek point to play as a key component of a 21st-century education but one that is missing from many American classrooms. When kids play their way into and out of open-ended problems, they give the 6 Cs a vigorous workout. For example, when fourth graders at the Philadelphia-area Friends’ Central School were challenged to build a boat and sail to Treasure Island, they were required to synergize many kinds of knowledge, from math to teamwork. Most importantly, there was no single “right answer.” The fun, shared goal of building the boat and imagining its ultimate destination helped kids hone the skills they need to embrace the unknown.
Not every child is fortunate enough to attend a school like Friends’ Central. Other Pennsylvania schools design their curriculum around the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exams, and the authors mention reports of American fourth graders experiencing anxiety and stomachaches from the pressure of standardized test-taking. Yet Finland, which tops the charts in global competitiveness, boasts four-hour, test-free school days for 7- and 8-year-olds. Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek praise Italy’s Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which emphasizes the pursuit of self-directed, interest-driven learning. And Canada, which outranks the U.S. in math, literacy, and science, has embraced learning through play. There is no reason why every U.S. school shouldn’t adopt a play-centric model; our national devaluation of play may be keeping American children from reaping proven benefits.
Even so, parents, grandparents, and other caretakers can find opportunities to facilitate the kinds of playful experiences that prove so productive for growing minds. For each C, Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek offer actionable ideas, like asking children open-ended questions (instead of those calling for a yes or no) so they can practice explaining themselves. There is also inspiration for adults, like inventing a new recipe in the spirit of creative risk-taking. Finally, each chapter offers suggestions for exercising—or fostering—the C in various environments. For example, a drama class might help a child practice critical thinking as she evaluates why and how her character might exhibit particular traits.
Readers of Becoming Brilliant will likely find themselves charting their own levels when it comes to the 6 Cs or thinking of adults they know who never quite grasped, say, the give and take of conversation. Even organizations can use this model of self-evaluation. For example, a small startup might consider becoming more like Google by encouraging employees to experiment and take chances or a city-planning committee with conflicting goals might learn how to come together to form a cohesive vision. In other words, it’s not just kids and their teachers who need to measure up to the 6 Cs; entire communities must strive for (and in some cases, redefine) 21st-century success.