By Kevin Anselmo
Isn’t it amazing how hearing a particular perspective can trigger ideas? One of the most poignant ways this happened for me was back in 2018. I was listening to the audiobook Most Likely to Succeed – Preparing our Kids for the Innovation ERA by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith while driving.
I heard the following paragraph:
“First, students need to be writing constantly. Learning to write well, like any other skill, takes many, many hours of practice. Second, students need to write for a real audience and to receive regular, structured feedback from their audiences. Other than looking at the grade on the front of the paper, students are usually totally indifferent to the teacher’s opinions of their work. But when they are writing for or presenting for an authentic audience, which has been asked to assess the working being presented – whether it is their peers or someone outside of the school – they work much harder to polish their work, and they seek to pay attention to feedback. Writing for a real audience, and writing about things they know and care about, are central to students’ development of an authentic voice in their work.”
It was almost immediately after hearing this paragraph, the idea for a real-life experiential communications training program for students popped into my mind called Global Innovators Academy. I love teaching – it is a big part of my consulting work that I lead generally for academics and researchers. I am passionate about communications – I named my company Experiential Communications back in 2013 to emphasize the experiential approach I would bring to my communications workshops. Everything stated in this paragraph aligned to what I thought was necessary for students. As soon as I came to a stop, I googled “Global Innovators Academy” and saw the domain was available.
Fast-forward two years later to when I recorded Interview an Innovator, the first course in the Global Innovators Academy (hopefully there are more courses to come). As part of the Interview an Innovator online course experience consisting of eight short video modules, students based on their own interests, interview innovators of their choosing. The students then write articles published online, thus improving their communications skills, network and digital footprint. The students also gain knowledge and inspiration about different careers. I tailor this program for different high school and university audiences.
This summer I have been running the Interview an Innovator pilot program with six different college students and one rising high school senior. It has been fascinating to see how these students have experienced the course and how this aligns to Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills: areas of emphasis that need to be embedded in our education so that students can excel at work and learning in the 21st century. Wagner communicated these ideas more than a decade ago. These survival skills are all the more important in the midst of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, both in work and education.
Here are some thoughts from my experiences on how students can hone these survival skills by taking part in practical, action-oriented communications education (like the Interview an Innovator experience).
1 - Critical thinking and problem solving.
Writing is a critical thinking exercise. In a research paper entitled Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology, researchers compared the critical thinking performance of students who experienced a laboratory writing treatment with those who experienced traditional quiz-based laboratory in a general education biology course. Results indicated that the writing group significantly improved critical thinking skills whereas the non writing group did not.
It would be recommended to incorporate how students solve a problem in the content they create.
2 - Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
The more students create useful content online, the more they are able to influence.
Think about the term “thought leadership”. Hubspot, the marketing software company, defines thought leadership as a “tactic content marketers use to build credibility for themselves or leaders in their company. The main goal of thought leadership is to become recognized as an expert and used as a go-to resource in your field. To become a thought leader, one might create and promote educational, helpful content and become active in the industry community, particularly on social sites.”
Well-known author Michael Hyatt writes that “most people recognize the value of an online platform. When you have one, you can reach more people with your message, products, or hard-won expertise. You multiply both your influence and your income. Everybody wins.”
Students need access to networks. The Clayton Christensen Institute has been creating fascinating research underscoring the importance of students building networks. One great way to foster student networking is to encourage them to create content based on interviews with different professionals whose current work aligns to the students’ interests.
For example, Yejin Sohn, a rising senior at Perry High School in Arizona, went through the Interview an Innovator experience this summer. She did an interview and wrote an article about an entrepreneur literally located halfway around the world in Seoul, Korea.
3 - Agility and adaptability.
When students take part in real-life writing projects in which they are creating content based on interviews, they have to demonstrate these skills of agility and adaptability. In the second module of the Interview an Innovator online experience, I encourage students to rank individuals they would want to interview from 1-4. The reality is that often the first choice isn’t available for one reason or another. Students need to be able to adapt and consider others.
When doing an interview or creating content, we think the story will go in one particular direction. Based on the insights gleaned in interviews and research, we need to be flexible and pivot towards other directions.
4 - Initiative and entrepreneurialism.
Delight Ejiaka, a student at Lee University in Tennessee, went through the Interview an Innovator experience. Interviewed by the Tennessee Education Report, Delight said: “I reached out to a lot of communication and marketing professionals via email and LinkedIn. Some of them did not reply the first time. I decided to be persistent and try again. I reached out to Casey Adams, a couple times before she could get back to me because of her busy schedule. We set up a time and had a great conversation that absolutely challenged me and gave me material for my article.”
This is just one example of how an experiential writing program can instill in students the importance of taking initiative themselves and persisting even if there isn't an immediate positive response.
In the Interview an Innovator experience, students explore how an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset addresses different challenges. Students are encouraged to explore this with the individual they interviewed and then communicate the key lessons and individual takeaways in the article.
5 - Effective oral and written communication.
An experiential communications program in which students are interviewing professionals and writing an article online involves various opportunities to practice and display communications skills:
- Emailing a professional and requesting their time for an interview.
- Conducting a thoughtful interview, either in-person or virtually.
- Writing and publishing the article.
- Getting the article approved once it has been finalized.
- Promoting the article through individual social media networks.
- Mobilizing others – individuals and groups – to share the content through their own networks.
Such business communications skills are imperative. Consider that 44% of the managers in a Payscale survey said recent college graduates lack professional writing skills. A recent National Association of Colleges and Employers survey is even more poignant. Almost 80% of recent graduates considered themselves proficient in oral / written communications, but only 41.6% of employers agreed. Clearly there is a disconnect! One way to bridge this gap is by providing students with opportunities for real life communications experiences.
6 - Accessing and analyzing information.
Not all information shared in an interview and discovered through research should necessarily be in the article. Students need to determine what information is pertinent for the article, then organize the information in a cohesive way for a reader.
When writing for a public audience, there is an additional dynamic involved with analyzing information. Writing for a teacher or professor means a student will receive feedback from one person. Writing for a public audience means that feedback will often come from a variety of sources. In the Interview an Innovator experience, the feedback will potentially come from the educator as well as the individual who was interviewed, the student’s peers and a public audience consisting of anyone from the student’s family members to a random troll. The feedback received could often vary. A family member’s praise for the student’s work might be coming from a biased perspective; a troll’s negativity might also come from a biased perspective on the opposite end of the spectrum. In my program, I dedicate a module to interpreting such feedback and encourage others to do the same.
7 - Curiosity and imagination.
Writers across different genres are generally curious. Writing coach Nina Amir wrote this interesting article on the link between curiosity and writing.
Part of my goals for the Interview an Innovator course is to enable students to explore career interests. A student might be curious about being a lawyer. Great, then go interview a person in this field and discover if this profession is a random thought or a career calling.
It was interesting to hear Penn State student Cali Carper's perspectives on how content creation sparks imagination. An aspiring community leader, Cali interviewed two different political leaders in her county as part of the Interview an Innovator course. She said: "The experience truly offers the potential to envision and imagine our future. It starts with curiosity. Then after the interview, our imagination leads us to create new connections, new questions and new beliefs. We have to imagine a future for our work and make sure we find the proper steps to make that vision a reality!"
Haley Panessa, a student at Rollins College, interviewed Kevin McLaughlin, the founder of the retail store J.McLaughlin. She wrote: “Envisioning Kevin and his brother’s journey to a ‘retail triumph’ demonstrates that with vision, impeccable timing and hard work, anything is possible. Taking that first job out of college and just saying ‘yes’ is crucial in discovering your skill set. Kevin has given me the assurance that if I do what I love and follow my intuition, things will inevitably work out.”
Wagner and Dintersmith highlight a glaring problem: many educators lack the time to evaluate students’ writing. At the high school level, teachers have class sizes that are among the largest among any developed country. Professors in higher education also face the challenge of time as they usually need to prioritize research and other administrative tasks over their teaching.
I don’t have a solution on how to address such a challenge individually. But I do think that together we can overcome the time constraint issue so that students can practice real life communications. The key would be to leverage technology and other resources. I created the Interview an Innovator course in part to serve as this strategic partner that not only provides instruction, but also the editing feedback and platform to host student’s content. Surely there are other resources out there as well.
Deloitte's Future of Work study notes that tomorrow's job seekers will increasingly need to find others who can help them get better faster. Schools should consider demonstrating this by creating such partnerships so that students can truly have the opportunity to create content aligned to their interests and in the process hone the survival skills they need to thrive in the workplace.