Professor James Johnson
Dr. Jim Johnson at the STEM Awardee meeting in August 2012.

On Wednesday, I was at the Washington Duke Inn in Durham for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s annual STEM awardee meeting. The keynote speaker was Dr. James Johnson of UNC. I’ve heard that Dr. Johnson was a dynamic speaker and I was not disappointed.

The focus of his talk was on how educators can prepare kids for the 21st century and the global marketplace. If you travel in education circles, this is not new. Dr. Johnson painted some grim pictures of American job loss. He said that the only constant, besides change, is uncertainty.

What I found particularly interesting is his take that the future is leaning towards a more entrepreneurial model—a freelance economy of sorts. Some examples he listed were:

With these websites, a job is posted and freelancers have the opportunity to bid for a chance to be hired. With steep competition, the so-called 21st Century skills need to be mastered: Speed, agility, flexibility, competitive drive, tenacity, persistence, entrepreneurial spirit, soft skills, and hard. Basically, these are the same skills that determine success.

What Johnson and others are arguing, I’m thinking Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams right now, is that these are the traits and skills that need to be taught in school.

In Stop Stealing Dreams, Godin talks about how the traditional school is about creating a factory worker who can follow directions and not be a nuisance. Punch a clock and go home. I think what Johnson and Godin are arguing that in order for America to “succeed”* schools need to create troublemakers–creative folks ready to break down traditional systems.

Where does it begin — the parents or the teachers?