It’s fashionable to push for education reform these days, but the results of our various programs and initiatives are often harder to pinpoint exactly. American students’ achievement remains stagnant compared with their international peers, and just this year U.S. students received the lowest overall scores in a decade on the SAT. Despite the movements to create better math and science-based STEM programs, and to limit the number of vocabulary words students need to know for standardized tests, it seems our focus for what our children need to know is narrowing even further when it should be doing the opposite: expanding.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum released its report on its “Skills needed in the 21st Century”, laying out the 16 most desirable attributes for students entering the workforce. In their report, WEF observed that despite our education system’s continued focus on “foundational skills” like literacy, numeracy and technical skills, this category made up only a third of the features needed to compete in the modern economy. Instead, the report highlighted the need to focus on character qualities and competencies that are harder to quantify—like creativity, communication, initiative, curiosity, grit and persistence.
To me, this demonstrates a fundamental disconnect in how we prepare students for the world and the world they are entering. These kind of social-emotional capabilities are mostly focused on in elementary school or even preschool without ever really being revisited. But education, like life, is a journey. It has different stages and chapters, but there should be continuity throughout. Maybe then we should reintroduce something to all levels of education most students will remember from kindergarten: time out.
I don’t mean that literally, of course. But I do think we have to reintroduce the importance of reflection, of “the pause,” throughout our educational system.
When a student is in time out, they are urged to stop and reflect on their past behavior, connect with their values, and understand the greater implications of their actions. Through this practice each individual student, internalizes realizations about their own behavior, gaining greater self-awareness and the ability to choose to act differently in the future. In the quiet of the pause, students are able to connect to their most deeply held principles and develop self-knowledge through increased understanding of the contents of their own heart. In this sense, the ability to pause allows for fuller, active decision making instead of mindless, reflexive reacting.
Pausing creates a break from the myriad stimuli of the modern world where one can determine the best path forward. This is the first step of true, ethical leadership of the kind we desperately need today.
We used to live in a world where few directed many: where one coach told his players to run this play; where a military general commanded a battalion to take that hill; where a CEO told his team to make those numbers. In that world everyone’s job was to use their skills to do the next thing right, to do things correctly. Today, when everybody is called upon for their qualities, to contribute their full character and creativity, everyone’s job is no longer to do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. The former requires certain requisite skills and increasingly machines are programmed to provide just that. The latter, however, takes the kinds of character, conscience and consciousness that are uniquely human.
The practice of reflective pausing provides the space to look back on your behavior and ask yourself certain necessary questions. Do your actions reflect your stated principles? How do my behaviors affect those around me? Pausing allows us to tap into our fullest capacities, and to truly do the next right thing. Leadership that inspires a culture of pausing is truly transformative. The more people pause, the more people are relating to others and behaving more compassionately. This doesn’t just build better organizations, it builds a better society as a whole.
If we want to ensure that we are educating a new generation not just of employees, but of real ethical leaders, it might be best to incorporate the pausing practices that have been tested with elementary school students into higher education.
Often times the first step in implementing the pause is providing people with the freedom to stop and take a step back.
In many nursing schools for instance, instead of squeezing more formal training into nurse practitioners’ overscheduled days, reflective pauses and observing periods are implemented to provide time to think and internalize proper technique. In these less hands on capacities, nurses in training develop a level of “metacognition”—the ability to think about how they are thinking—allowing them to function as both actor and observer, able to act in the moment, while also making critical assessments about their own behavior. With greater space to really think, the nurses develop a better sense of what they need to work on, develop better communication skills and better understand the purpose behind their profession.
In Bangalore, India, Wipro, an IT and tech support company, put this practice of reflective pausing to the test by splitting its employees into three groups and comparing their results on a series of training exercises. One group was advised to just try and get through all of the problems, while groups two and three were told to take a break to think through how they solved the previous problems, with one group actually writing out the steps they had taken. After a month, the results spoke for themselves: although the groups that paused actually worked 15 minutes less that the first group, both scored 20% higher than the control group.
By introducing this practice of pause earlier and encouraging it through each stage of education until a student is ready to enter the real world, we can create new generations of more effective, empathetic and ethical leaders who will help build a better world.