By Heba Abou Shnief

Preparing our children for a knowledge and data driven world is no easy feat for parents. Today children are exposed to an explosion of information and data accessible through digital technologies and online tools.  In an increasingly connected global economy, where competition is fierce, the capacity to utilize information and data will be key drivers of success in our children’s future working lives.  According to Magued Osman, Former Minister of Communications and Information Technology and current CEO of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research Baseera, “The value of data and information is much greater than it was 10 years ago.  You need only to look at the Fortune 500 list to see that data-driven firms and tech-based corporations are taking prominence. Even small businesses and entrepreneurs are increasingly relying on research and data analysis for better decision-making.” Evidently, the more successful businesses are those that invest in R&D (research and development).

Winning at sports through data analytics!

Modern sports teams, both amateur and professional, use research, data and data analytics not only to assess the performance of individual players on a team (or in single-player sports like tennis), but to assess opponents, opposing team configurations, potential matchups and, even more recently, to assess a live game in progress and make adjustments to team formations, defensive or offensive strategies and other factors to influence a game in progress.  This is very evident in professional sports, including football and Formula One racing, but also with student athletes in universities and colleges in everything from volleyball to basketball.  Many analysts who work in these contexts develop to take on substantial positions in the business world, using the same skills to establish ‘dashboards’ and other analytical tools in the commercial world.

Conventional education just isn’t enough!

In this environment, conventional education and learning approaches that emphasize memorization over analysis and critical thinking will not cut it.  Basic education and learning in the core subjects is indispensible, but for our children to thrive in a highly competitive labor market and contribute meaningfully to this digitally connected and data driven world they need to understand early on the value of data, research and analysis.

For this to happen, our children need to be independent learners and posses the analytical capacity to solve problems in an evidence-based manner. These are all applied skills that distinguish an informed and productive 21st century workforce.  Karim El Sadr, PepsiCo’s Head of Financial Planning and Analysis for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council area), suggests that, “It is important to have data. But after all, data is ‘raw’.  Without the capability to analyze data, it will be of no benefit. Data-driven insights and research is core to our operations.  We often look for employees with strong analytical and research skills.”

Data delivers results

The need for research and analysis skills is not confined to the data-driven and tech based sector, as all professionals increasingly rely to varying degrees on research and analysis to operate.  Take the film and TV industry, as an example, for a script writer to develop a script for a movie based on true life events he/she needs to conduct background research through interviews, reading biographies and access data to properly reflect the events, context and personalities. Similarly, for a TV host to develop informed content for his/her program, they rely on a team of researchers and also conduct their own research.

Equipping kids with transferable skills

But how can we build the analytical and problem solving skills of our children in a manner that complements core subjects, such as science, mathematics, languages, and geography taught in school? One answer lies in bolstering the research capacity of our children. Research is an essential applied skill; one that not only advances the knowledge horizons of children to help them better understand the world they live in—but is also a proven way through which they can learn to independently find data, analyze it (even to assess its integrity) and then use it to solve a problem, capitalize on an opportunity or even challenge the data itself.

Research skills are a set of structured modes of inquiry, which means that they are transferable to any sector or domain of knowledge.  According to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO), Global Commission on the Future of Work, that convenes a global discussion among labor market specialists and experts on what skills are needed in the future workplace, future workers need to be equipped with a transferable skills set that can be applied across sectors and time. Furthermore, written communication is another critical skill cultivated through research.

Early start on research skills

Students need to be introduced to research at schools and as early as the preparatory stage, not simply at the secondary and university levels as is currently the widespread practice in Egypt. They need to be exposed early on to the concept of data and evidence based research. Your child already has an edge if he/she is enrolled in an educational system that emphasizes research in the curriculum and embeds it in the core subjects, like the International Baccalaureate, for instance. But also giving your child a boost through research training workshops, research internships and extra-curricular activities involving research projects are proven ways in which students can build their research skills. At home, assigning your child guided research tasks that involve gathering data and information from online and offline sources to answer a research question is a worthwhile activity that can help hone their research skills. Linking these research assignments to their hobbies or topics of interest can certainly serve to motivate your child. It is important that children learn to engage and appreciate research from early on, so that when they reach the university level it is not simply perceived as a means to fulfill course requirements and by the time they join the workforce they would already be adept at researching and using information.

No matter how long the journey from basic education to future employment might seem, by gradually and incrementally preparing our children we will give them a head start in what is a dynamic and radically changing data driven and connected world.

Heba Abou Shnief is a Senior Fellow at the City University of New York. Her work has focused on research design, execution and capacity building around development policy and philanthropy.