Jennifer Snelling
How do we prepare today' 's learners for tomorrow' 's jobs?

America’s changing workforce played a huge role in the 2016 presidential election. Evolving jobs in coal and other industries mean our country faces a massive shift akin to the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, fears about a “jobless” economic recovery have left many Americans questioning what the future of work looks like. 

We can’t see the future by looking in the rearview mirror, but it does come into view when we visit today’s classrooms. We know we have to prepare students for the workforce, but what do the jobs of the future look like?

The Trump administration recently earmarked $200 million for STEM, computer science and coding. There’s no doubt these disciplines will be useful, but are they sufficient to ensure students are prepared for the future workforce? 

“[Teaching computer science and coding] is good advice for the next five or 10 years,” says Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and Smart Cities That Work for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education & Employment. “But most coding will be automated even five years from now. We are rushing to teach what will be ancient. In the long run, students must have the ability to know and manage themselves, get along with others and attack complicated problems with empathy and understanding. Those appear to be the only sustainable skills that won’t be subject to automation for the next 30 years.” 

Contributors to an uncertain future

Automation, along with globalization, leaves many workers with an uncertain future. Education company Pearson recently teamed up with researchers from Nesta and the Oxford Martin School for a study called “The Future of Skills.” The study forecasts that seven in 10 workers are in jobs where there will be greater uncertainty about the future. 

“In the U.S., there is particularly strong emphasis on interpersonal skills,” says the study. “These skills include teaching, social perceptiveness, service orientation and persuasion. Our findings also confirm the importance of higher-order cognitive skills such as complex problem-solving, originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.”

In other words, the very thing that separates us from the robots, our humanity, will remain irreplaceable, says Vander Ark. Empathy, critical thinking, persistence and knowing how to learn will be invaluable. 

The question for teachers, then, is how to teach these essentially human skills. If they are what makes us human, doesn’t that mean our students already have them?

To some degree, yes. But today’s schools, many of which haven’t changed much since the Industrial Revolution, are in many ways designed to “unteach” these very skills, says David Conley, Ph.D., professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Oregon’s College of Education and founder of EdImagine. 

Conley says the old skills for school success are compliance, punctuality, following directions, doing only what’s asked, focusing on goals set by others, gaining favor with teachers, not asking questions and learning without applying. 

The new skills for workforce success will be initiative, independence, personal management, high aspirations/goal orientation, challenging conventions and assumptions, persistence, technology as a learning tool, help-seeking and tolerance of failure. In other words, all the skills that make a successful entrepreneur.

“Most schools teach that there’s a right and wrong answer for everything, so that there’s an increasing disconnect between the classroom and the world students are going to enter,” says Conley. “I believe this is a national crisis. We either do this or we’re going to be permanently underemployed.”

The following are three approaches to teaching digital age skills in very different ways:

Entrepreneurial experience: The Workshop School

Vander Ark suggests schools take entrepreneurial thinking and ask students to apply it to the most important problems of our time. “With storms like Irma and Harvey, human systems and natural systems are colliding in unpredictable ways. Combined with urbanization, globalization and automation, kids are going to face waves of novelty and complexity,” he says. 

“That’s why it’s important to introduce kids to extended meaningful challenges. It’s like handing them a world owners’ manual, both good and bad. For a teenager to really tackle a global problem, creating those real, authentic, community-connected challenges is the only way we can equip kids for what’s headed in their direction.” 

The Workshop School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, grew out of just such a mindset. Students at one of Philadelphia’s struggling high schools wanted to build hybrid cars and got the attention of President Obama when they entered an international hybrid car-building contest in 2010.

“They didn’t have a lot of money,” Obama said of the West Philly High team while unveiling a new education initiative. “They didn’t have the best equipment. They certainly didn’t have every advantage in life. But what they had was a program that challenged them to solve problems, work together, to learn and build and create. That’s the kind of spirit and ingenuity that we have
to foster.”

The original car-building project was so successful that it morphed into an idea for a new school that opened in 2014. Students at The Workshop School get math and English in the afternoons, but the mornings are devoted to hands-on projects that integrate all the disciplines. 

Through projects that include building cars, designing jewelry or producing a play, students fundraise for ad space, reach out to the community, engage in public speaking and set up web-based stores – all the skills that help a small business run.

Brandon Klevence, a teacher at the school, says the school doesn’t grade in the traditional sense. Rather, the adviser identifies skill sets, such as collaboration, public speaking and design process, and gives the students feedback. 

“Being able to attempt a project and get to a space where you can talk about it, get feedback and learn from it is the goal,” says Klevence. “Even the project fails, that is a success.” 

In other words, while many of the classes may look like traditional career and technical education from the outside, The Workshop School is asking students to employ design thinking. 

“These used to be considered soft skills,” says Vander Ark. “But now this is one of the most important dimensions of human capability. Perseverance – grit – is the most important bullet when it comes to human development and thriving. Persevere through difficulty and have the growth mindset.”

Whether we call it a growth mindset, way-finding ability, student agency or design thinking, the skill of being unafraid to try a project, fail and adjust based on the outcome will serve students well even if specific technical skills are achieved through automation. 

More than coding and computer science: High Tech High

You’d think at a school called High Tech High (HTH) there might be a lot of emphasis on coding and computer science. Instead, you find students building sailboats from the ground up or working with forensics to help inmates through the California Innocence Project.

 The school opened in 2000 as a small public charter school and has evolved into an integrated network for 13 charter schools serving K-12 students across three California campuses. 

Like The Workshop School, High Tech High depends on hands-on entrepreneurial projects that ask kids to construct knowledge from a variety of interdisciplinary resources. 
“All that information that we’ve been asking kids to memorize, we don’t need that. We have Google,” says humanities teacher Pat Holder. “The question becomes how do we use that information? The 21st century classroom is engaging real issues and work that matters, making sure we incorporate relevant technology for engaging the world.” 

Examples of projects in 11th grade biology include partnering with a biotech company that designs equipment to monitor vital signs. Students run clinical trials to measure blood oxygen levels and study heart disease. A second project has students studying infectious diseases and the importance of soap and hand sanitizer. Students partnered with a nonprofit to provide hand soap to orphanages in Burma and produce graphics and cartoons to promote hand-washing. 

“I don’t want to just give them skills for a marketable job, but the skills to contribute meaningfully to the people and places around them,” says biology teacher Kalle Applegate Palmer. “I want them to feel like their voice is credible and they have the tools to express themselves and interact in their future communities in a way that they can make an impact.”

An important aspect of HTH is that every 11th grader participates in an internship. Palmer, who supervises the internships, says she notices what skills students need while visiting work places and brings that back to her classroom. Students do everything from graphic design to carpentry to marine biology. 

“When they go into the workforce, they’ve used the formal scientific protocol, worked with adults and have the ability to look things up and be resourceful,” says Palmer. “Internships are good immersive experiences to think about what they’re learning and how that applies outside of high schools.”

Rather than just memorizing pages of the biology textbook, students are asked to design scientific questions, think about credible sources and collaborate with each other on solving problems. 

Ben Smith, educational technology program specialist and founder of EdTechInnovators, says one of the best things teachers can do for their students is ask them to go beyond problem-solving and become problem finders. 

“One of the biggest shifts we can make is to be vague. When you’re implicit in the instruction, such as requiring a presentation with five slides, three references and two images, typically that’s what you’re going to get,” he says. “Challenge by leaving the assignment more open-ended and it that will bring out the best in students.” 

Connecting with the real world: Thurston High School

Making connections to real jobs has been a focus of Oregon’s Thurston High School counselor Amy Stranieri. Through a partnership with the Technology Association of Oregon, Stranieri interviewed 106 employees at 10 technology companies. She asked computer technicians, as well as employees in all departments of the companies, what skills they used most in their jobs. 

What did she learn? Communication, collaboration and, again, way-finding ability. “It’s not just about coding and computer science,” says Stranieri. “Communication, verbal and written, a deep sense of curiosity and an ability to figure out your own problems were very important. In school, students get dependent on teachers to tell them the way – a learned helplessness – they know they can wait out the answer. In any job if something breaks, you have to have the sense of urgency to get moving and figure it out.”

Stranieri, who also teaches a college- and career-readiness class, says she asks her students to play a lot of games with uncertainty, do a lot of writing and work in groups so they develop communication skills. She says these things frustrate her students sometimes. “They would love to just get a worksheet,” she says. “But learning is when they have to do something they don’t know the answer to.” 

Thurston also partners with a school-to-work program called Elevate Lane County to provide job shadows and internships. 

Opportunities for kids and teachers to observe and participate in the existing workforce are invaluable, says Scott McLeod, founding director of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) and the co-creator of the video series, “Did You Know? (Shift Happens).” He recommends administrators find ways to pay teachers to take a day off and go visit job sites, and encourage teacher externships for a paid week or two in the summer. 

“If you talk to science or math teachers, most of them don’t have a good sense of how their disciplines are currently used in occupations. We need to connect educators to specific jobs out in the workforce across a variety of settings,” McLeod says. 

The teachers who have started to do this have found that work in the classroom has changed because they are able to make it more meaningful and connected.          

The For-Sure Skills

We can speculate about the ways our workforce will change, but we cannot know exactly what the future holds. What we do know is that design thinking, knowledge construction, communication and collaboration will help students find valuable, meaningful work no matter what the coming economy needs. 

Our communities, parents and schools are facing challenges that are not well understood by politicians or policymakers, says John M. Eger, director of the Creative Economy Initiative at San Diego State University.

“A whole new economy based upon creativity and innovation is emerging. This is why, as I have said before, we urgently need to redesign our K-12 to focus on preparing students for this new competition if we are to survive, let alone succeed, in this new global economy,” says Eger. “The world is changing so fast, tech is changing so fast, people have to acquire new and different skills. What we need to do now is to learn how to learn.”

Jennifer Snelling is a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. As a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.

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