[Warning from Susie Ma’am: this is one of Steve Sir’s longer article, but I think it is one that you will appreciate. We parents are looking for ways to prepare our children for success in the future. This article discusses the skills fostered at camp and their importance to the real world. Steve did a 10 minute TEDx talk on this subject that you might want to share with friends and family that wonder how camp can help your child. Here is the link:
Now, on with his blog!]
For the past 26 years, I have enthusiastically endorsed camp as a great growth experience for children. At times, I wondered if I might be overstating the case slightly. For the first 17 or 18 years, I suspected that I was too excited about camp.
I am now convinced that I was understating the power of the camp experience. Why is that? Technology.
I understand that this does not initially make sense. How does attending a camp devoid of technology help a child succeed in a world defined by it? Let me explain.
My basic theory is the following:
- Technology has transformed the world we live in: markets are global, workplaces are constantly evolving and the technology itself is perpetually changing.
- This new world requires a certain set of skills in order to succeed.
- Ironically, technology is impeding the development of the very skills needed for success.
Let me look at each component of my theory separately.
Technology has transformed the world we live in. This requires little explanation, but I will note some of the most powerful changes.
- Global Competition: Information technology has made the world “flat” so that we are competing with India as much as we are competing with Indiana.
- Evolving Workplace: Traditional organizational structures are fading and the “office” is changing as well.
- Products appear (and disappear) rapidly: If you were to understand all the workings of an iPhone, your knowledge would be obsolete in less than 3 years. Compare this to the automobile of the 1940s-1970s. A person trained to repair engines could do so successfully over decades. Now, few can keep pace with the changes. Adaptation is critical.
- Machines will replace many jobs that humans currently do. The key to future careers is to focus on activities that are unique to humans, like creativity, collaboration and leadership.
This new world requires a certain set of skills in order to succeed in it. About 10 years ago, a group of companies concluded that entry-level employees were coming to them without the skills necessary for success. As a result, they created the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (p21.org). The participants in this program include most of the most respected companies in the US: Apple, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Ford, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Marriott, etc.
The Partnership has conducted 3 studies including over 2000 organizations of different sizes. They created a list of skills that are critical for success in the 21st Century. Did “Technological Skills” make the list? Yes, but tech skills do not crack the top 10. Further, employers find that the new employees have sufficient skills in this area. Also, employers are not focused on the “3 Rs” of Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic.
Instead, the list focused on the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Here is the top 5 list:
- Oral communication
- Work ethic/self discipline
- Written communication
- Critical thinking/problem solving
I see this list as a love letter to summer camps. Admittedly, we do not improve written communication skills, but I believe that we help children develop the other 4 skills as well as any other experience. Schools are busy teaching math and grammar, so they do not have the time or the format to foster oral communication and collaboration. At camp, face-to-face interaction is a constant and dynamic challenge.
Camps develop self-discipline through rituals (inspection) and challenges (time away from home, trying new activities).
Some schools encourage problem solving, but the ‘problems’ are usually narrowly defined (like a math problem). What the Partnership is interested in here is the ability to solve unexpected challenges. At camp, this includes finding ways to have fun when all activities are rained out or creating skits at the last minute. Managing the ups and downs of living in close quarters certainly fosters resourcefulness.
Even Google is joining this trend. They conducted a study of their most successful employees and learned something surprising - that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills were the least important predictor of success in their company. The top predictors were "being a good coach", "listening well", "communicating well" and "being empathetic".
Technology is impeding the development of the very skills needed for success. Look at the list again. Communication and collaboration are interpersonal skills, as is empathy. Skills require practice. Learning to persuade another person or organize a group of people happens through experimentation and repetition, just like a tennis forehand or a Mozart piano sonata.
Interpersonal skills are developed face-to-face, not on Instagram, Snapchat or over texts messages. OMG! That is scary.
It is scary because many of our teens are addicted to technology and social media. Consider these two facts:
- In 2012, The Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American teen spends 53 hours per week interacting with an electronic screen. Where is that time coming from? Hours spent in school and studying have remained generally consistent, but children are interacting and playing off-line less. Simply put, the vast majority of these “lost” hours come from the activities that help them develop and “practice” interpersonal skills.
- Pew Research and the Neilson Company discovered that the average teen sends and receives 3,339 text per month while spending 95 minutes a day doing so.
- Recent studies suggest that teens are now closer to 60 hours per week of screen time and that social media is responsible for the extra hour per day.
If, as the Partnership convincingly argues, interpersonal skills are the key to success in the modern workplace, then these trends are deeply concerning. When our children should be strengthening their communication, collaboration and leadership skills (another skill in huge deficit), they are instead turning to their phones, game boys, and computers.
In short, technology is taking away the very skills needed to succeed in a technological world.
Summer camp is the only experience I am aware of where children and teens will give up their phones for days or weeks at a time and still enjoy themselves. In fact, I frequently hear from teenagers that welcome a holiday from the demands of social media. Keeping up with social media is time-consuming and often full of drama. At camp, children interact face-to-face and send zero texts.
When they return home, they will pick up their phones again, but I see three important differences in our campers compared to other children and teens. First, they tend to use them less. They have felt life separated from the electronic umbilical cord and liked it. While they still text, they also put the phones down sooner. Second, they know they can be spectacular without these devices. They learn my personal favorite “killer app - “the off button”. Finally, they are more effective communicators, better friends and more skilled leaders than their peers. Every year, I hear a litany of campers saying that “I am not sure what happened, but suddenly my group wanted me to be the leader.
This generation will never be as good as their grandparents at interpersonal interactions. Of course, they are more skilled in technology than their grandparents. Yet it is these interpersonal skills that are most important and most lacking. Our children do not have to communicate as effectively face-to-face as their grandparents, but if we can help them be better than those around them, they will be primed for success – in their careers and their relationships.
A few years ago, I met with the Chairman of the Partnership for 2 days. He is an accomplished speaker and education leader, having presented at conferences with Gordon Brown (former British Prime Minister), Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. After learning about the summer camp experience, he has become intrigued. In fact, in a recent speech at the Clinton Global Initiative on “Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace”, he told the crowd the following, “If you want to hire creative people, you will find them at summer camps. I would recommend hiring former counselors – they will bring innovation to your team at work.”
Not a bad endorsement from a leader in education!
PS We have some cool news that we will be sharing in a later blog.
PPS If you got all the way through this article, I am impressed!