Old World, Old Question. New World, New Question?

When I was a young kid, I wanted to be a businessman. I always thought the guys walking around in suits with the pagers were “living the dream.” So that’s who I wanted to be. Whenever anyone asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? that was my response: a businessman.

In the past, the what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up question served a purpose.

But what about today?

The world of work has changed. Today, 87 percent of workers worldwide are not engaged in their work. The very notions of why we work and how we understand our work are being called into question. And, especially important for education, almost two-thirds of students today will be working in jobs that don’t exist yet.

So what does this mean for how we engage students? What should we be asking young people?

Jaime Casap, Google Education’s chief education evangelist, thinks we need a new question. Casap says adults should ask youth: what problem do you want to solve?

I think this question has profound implications for young people and education in at least three important ways.

First, we know that solving problems is inevitably prosocial, and research shows that prosocial behavior is a powerful motivator. Adam Grant, author and management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that solving problems for others motivates us more than solving problems for ourselves.

Second, we know that solving problems is necessarily creative. Jane McGonigal, game designer, author and director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, recently spoke at SXSWedu, where she said, “To create something new, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different.”

Third, solving problems for other people is ultimately empowering. Gary Schoeniger, founder of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative -- a company supported in its early stages by the Kauffman Foundation -- asserts that solving problems for other people is the driving force behind successful entrepreneurs, whether they know it or not.

Kansas City recognizes the importance of engaging problems. This year, 4.0 Schools and The Lean Lab are partnering to provide opportunities for educators and innovators of all kinds to identify problems and work toward solutions.

The act of solving problems yields the very skills and attributes that all educators hope to cultivate in their students, all parents hope to instill in their kids and all employers hope to find in their employees.

If you asked me today, what do I want to be when I grow up? I’d tell you I don’t really care to be that businessman, running around in the suit, with the smartphone, looking important.

But if you asked me what problem do I want to solve? I’d tell you that I’m striving to help people live their best lives, helping them take ownership of their learning and working with them to craft and make real the lives of their dreams. That’s what I’d say.

What would you say? What problem do you want to solve?


Michael Crawford previously worked as the assessment coordinator with the Kauffman Scholars program. 

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Michael Crawford

Michael Crawford is the Director of Coaching, Courses and Curriculum at Story2, a company using storytelling to transform school, work and life. In this role, Michael trains and supports coaches, manages and leads courses and designs and builds curricula.