Are superintendents, teachers, and principals ready to equip students for the future?

 

As technological innovation continues, the landscape of the modern workplace will continue to evolve. A January 2019 report from the Brookings Institution signaled the radical nature of the changes to come, positing that up to 36 percent of all current jobs will experience moderate exposure to automation. While automation certainly isn’t the Grim Reaper of the modern workplace it’s often made out to be—automated technologies can perform tasks but not entire jobs, as the report noted—the rise of automation underscores the need for workers to be prepared: no longer are degrees and hard skills alone sufficient to ensure employability. And because such innovations often outpace the evolution of educational curricula, schools have yet to adapt. Even though the modern workplace will require students to know how to use a computer, for example, many remain stubbornly fixated on old-school, pencil-and-paper methods. By and large, educators are aware of the impending challenges—but their schools have yet to align on questions of what these changes might look like and, more importantly, how they might respond to better prepare these students.

Thus, there are three primary questions that educators need to be asking themselves given recent survey data from Artemis and the changing landscape of work. First, do the educators themselves understand the future of work? Next, do they understand how students can thrive in that future workplace? And lastly, what can they—as teachers and principals and superintendents—do to prepare students for that future?

Schools and the Future of Work: Do Educators Need to Go Back to School?

Broadly speaking, schools are aware of the obstacles that a modern workplace presents: a recent survey of teachers, principals, and superintendents in the Pacific Northwest region found that all three groups possessed a degree of familiarity with the changing landscape of work. Categorizing the landscape into five general trends, the survey asked respondents whether they were (1) comfortable teaching about the trend, (2) familiar with the trend, or (3) relatively uninformed/had never heard of the trend. Across almost all categories, no group of teachers, principals, or superintendents possessed a majority of respondents who were comfortable teaching students. The only exception was increasing student debt, where 57 percent of teachers answered that they could reasonably educate students—which is understandable, considering that K-12 educators have the most direct contact with the individuals who are most immediately affected by student debt. In addition, a significant number of respondents also indicated that they were unfamiliar with trends that do not affect K-12 students until their formal education has ended, such as shifting industries and the evolving definition of “career.” Although educators may understandably be more aware of trends that will immediately affect their students after high school—such as growing loans and student debt—the survey’s findings signal a need for educators to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that their students will face long after they have left the classroom.

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Nevertheless, while the survey results might initially appear alarming, there are several bright spots: first, a significant number of respondents across all categories were still familiar with each of the trends. Even if they lacked the true expertise to teach the trend to a student, many weren’t uninformed, either. Thus, preparing teachers to educate modern workforces might not require as heavy an investment as schools might initially have assumed. Though a significant number of educators still need to build and develop their foundational knowledge, a fair number are also close to possessing a concrete expertise which they can then transfer to students.

The first step for schools, then, is to ensure that their educators have a certain base understanding of the future of work. Educators do not necessarily need to possess an in-depth working knowledge of each of the five trends, but familiarity with each of the trends can give educators the cognizance to begin pivoting classroom instruction toward these trends. And if even the educators themselves do not understand the true nature of the future of work, how can they be expected to successfully prepare students?

“Developing STEM fundamentals, especially math and statistics, will keep the doors open to opportunities.”

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How Can Students Survive the Modern Workplace?

A February 2019 blog post from Artemis on the “Future of Work” posited that schools can prepare their students for the changing workforce by teaching them both hard and soft skills equally. Establishing a certain literacy in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—for example, was listed as a key foundational skill that could secure to employment opportunities for students even as the workplace evolves.

But given the rapid advancements in technological innovation, however, these hard skills often aren’t enough to secure employment. In her article “Here are the Skills that Hiring Managers at the top 50 LinkedIn Companies want,” Maya Pope-Chappell of LinkedIn noted that human resource leaders listed the “ability to learn” as the most important skill future employees needed to stay competitive in the modern workforce. From a hard-skills perspective, the capacity to learn gives students opportunities to acquire skills and technical expertise that can differentiate themselves from their peers; by ensuring that they are constantly growing, employees can ensure that their skills will not be rendered obsolete by technological advancements.

When educators were asked about the most important skills for students in the modern workplace, however, acquiring an ability to learn was not given the same emphasis—only principals collectively listed “metacognition/how to learn” in their top three skills for surviving the modern workplace. While teachers and superintendents both listed skills which could assist with the ability to learn, such as “grit” and “commitment,” the disconnect between educators and employers is clear. Furthermore, certain “soft-skills”skills such as empathy and self-awareness were also viewed as comparatively unimportant by the survey respondents, even though Daniel Goleman, co-chair of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, noted in a Harvard Business Review article that there are often “direct ties between emotional intelligence and measurable business results.” Not only are students with strong soft skills more likely to get hired, then, but they might also become more productive, effective employees in a workplace defined increasingly but the strength of one’s interpersonal interactions.

Consequently, then, educators need to reconsider and realign their educational missions with the skills which employers need the most. While schools certainly shouldn’t pursue the singular goal of developing employable students, they certainly don’t want to produce students who struggle to find work, either. Thus, the pertinent and prudent next move for schools is to realign their values—if employers want students who know how to learn, then schools should prioritize giving students assignments and learning opportunities that will develop those skills; if employers want humble and hardworking students, then educators should seek to instill those values in the classroom. After all, if employers are not looking for the skills which schools have developed in students, then each crop of graduating students will, unfortunately, struggle to find work in an increasingly competitive economy.

“In the classroom, social and emotional learning skills can be developed by cooperative group work, discussions, peer-to-peer teaching, problem-solving and group reflection. Project and inquiry-based learning can also help children to learn to think critically, use technology, and solve problems.”—Adam Shirley

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What Can Schools Do to Help?

Beyond strategy alignment, however, schools also need to begin to develop a practical infrastructure through which they can not only prepare students but also equip teachers with the necessary tools to adjust their curricula. Here, several broad disparities between knowledge and implementation begin to crystallize—even though educators are aware of the need to adapt educational systems to the changing landscape of work, the survey results indicate that the schools themselves have yet to fully adapt.

Of course, most districts and schools aren’t leaving students entirely unprepared. More than fifty percent of all the educators surveyed indicated that their schools—and school districts—had a defining strategy to empower future generations through STEM education. In other words, schools have at least taken steps to ensure that their students will have the fundamental hard skills necessary to adapt to more specialized lines of work. Despite the existence of an overarching strategy, however, educators have yet to connect the notion of a strong STEM with employability in the future workplace. Even though the majority of districts had a STEM strategy—and an overwhelming majority of educators agreed on the importance of a STEM education—less than 15 percent of schools had a strategy explicitly tailored to the “future of work.” The disconnect here, while seemingly trivial, is still important: a STEM strategy ultimately covers the hard skills which students may need, but does little to equip them with “soft skills” such as metacognition and empathy that will be just as important for their future employment.

Fortunately, adapting schools to the “future of work” may not necessarily require broad, systemic infrastructure shifts that can only be financed through costly investments. In terms of hard skills, schools are already looking in the right places in seeking to give students a tangible, employable knowledge base that they can use to find work. By ensuring that educators have adequate resources, schools can capitalize on the fact that they have identified a key pressure point—ensuring STEM literacy among students—before the greatest impacts of automation and innovation have truly hit the workforce. Given that the vast majority of educators have already agreed on the importance of a foundational STEM education, all schools need to do is to begin to tailor the STEM education explicitly toward the future of work. Providing spaces for students to not only develop theoretical knowledge but to apply their knowledge in real-life work situations can ensure that students truly have the skills they need to survive the modern workplace. More concretely, schools can begin to bridge the gap between theory and practice by helping students think about their careers—a step which many schools have already taken. Around half of the schools surveyed already employed career counselors, who can provide valuable advice to students as they begin determining their career paths. And nearly one-third of the schools surveyed support their students in securing internships, giving them work opportunities where they can pair their academic knowledge with real-world job training.

Nevertheless, the gaps between school districts are still abundantly clear: though most have career counselors, many still have yet to offer concrete support to students seeking work opportunities such as internships. Not all schools can, after all, afford to hire career counselors, and finding internships—especially paid internships—can be difficult if schools have not already constructed a robust network with employers that are willing to hire high school students. Luckily, schools have also yet to fully capitalize on a key resource that can help students find work: alumni. Less than half of the schools surveyed kept in touch with their alumni at all, and less than ten percent used LinkedIn—a social media website tailored to helping individuals find career opportunities—as the primary means of staying connected. This indicates that schools have an untapped resource which they can use to help their students: by maintaining more defined, long-term connections with their alumni, schools can begin to create the relationships that might eventually lead to partnerships where students can find internships. And even if the alumni do not work for companies that traditionally hire pre-collegiate interns, they can still lend educators valuable insights on the future of work. They are, after all, the ones on the front lines, and having experienced the effects of technological advancements in the present, they can help educators gain perspective on the changes that might come in the future.

What Comes Next?

Admittedly, preparing students for the modern workforce is a task easier said than done. Substantial shifts must occur in the educators’ mindset before any true change can occur, and these shifts will require time and money—both of which are often in short supply—to take place. As mentioned earlier, however, the obstacles to preparing educators are not as insurmountable as they might seem: many educators are not only already aware of the changing landscape of the future workplace, but are also working for schools that have developed concrete plans for preparing students moving forward. Consequently, from a grand strategy perspective, there are only two small changes that need to occur: schools which are already preparing students for the future workplace need to better align their soft skill development with those presented by employers; and schools which have yet to make such preparations need to begin building the infrastructure and knowledge necessary to equip their students for future success.

More concretely, schools can—and should—lean in more heavily to alumni networks. While career counselors and corporate partnerships are good theoretical solutions to the problem of giving students real-life work experience, many schools simply don’t have the resources to employ either of those solutions. Instead, maintaining alumni networks provides a low-cost alternative to simply amassing more resources, and can give students access to valuable knowledge and crucial relationships that might manifest into work opportunities down the road.

And bringing opportunities to develop hard and soft skills into the classroom isn’t as impossible or radical a task as it may initially appear either. More projects and fewer lectures can give students the opportunity to not only interactively apply their learned knowledge in real-world scenarios, but can—simultaneously—give them a chance to hone their soft skills. After all, the vast majority of students will ultimately be working with other human beings, and teaching them how to do so in K-12 education will help build habits that will benefit them in the long run.

The future of work will undeniably yield shifts in employment that cannot fully be predicted—that much is already clear. But schools can take concrete steps to help students prepare themselves. Now, more than ever, students are entering an increasingly competitive, evolving workplace: all that remains to be seen is whether or not their educators will make the necessary changes to truly invest in their success.