Being a student should be a little like being an apprentice preparing for life in the real world. But when school is nothing like the future workplace, that goal is impossible to reach.
So what will the real world be like when students enter the workforce? We hear a lot about the future of jobs. Will they all be shipped overseas? Will workers be replaced by robots? Will students be unemployable unless they know how to code?
Getting students and teachers out into the current workforce will better prepare everyone for what to expect, says Scott McLeod, associate professor of educational leadership at University of Denver.
“If you talk to science or math teachers, most of them don’t have a good sense of how their subjects are used in occupations. We need to connect educators to discipline-specific jobs out in the workforce across a variety of settings,” he says. “The places that have started to do that find that work in the classroom changes because they are able to make it more meaningful and connected.”
Here are some ways for educators to connect with the world beyond the classroom.
Rhetoric vs. reality
High Tech High’s Kalle Applegate Palmer became a teacher a few years ago after leaving a career in marine biology. She quickly realized that empowerment was the most important skill that students needed to transition from school to the workforce. She wanted her students to conduct real experiments and investigate real questions that they were excited about. She partnered with local and state parks to provide them with that opportunity.
“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,” she says. “I didn’t want them to memorize a biology textbook, but to know how to design scientific questions and think about credible sources.”
All students at High Tech High complete an internship. This opportunity allows students to not only delve deeper into a subject that interests them, but also to see that the teacher “talking points,” such as professional communication and responsibility, are important in the workplace.
“The internships help us bridge the gap between what we’re pushing as rhetoric and the reality of what we’re asking for them as citizens in the future,” Palmer says.
Teachers are learners, too
Palmer has the unusual advantage of having recently worked in her field. Most teachers have been in education for much, if not all, of their careers, but it’s important to see how your subject currently applies to the real world. McLeod would like to see districts pay teachers to take a day off and visit job sites or spend a paid week or two each summer interning their field.
Oregon's Thurston High School counselor Amy Stranieri had just such an opportunity, and it changed the way she guides students. Through a project with Elevate Lane County, Stranieri visited 10 different job sites and conducted 106 interviews with employees from throughout the organizations.
Much like Palmer, Stranieri found that empowerment is one of the most important ingredients to becoming successful in the workplace. And it’s not something typically instilled at school.
“In school, students get dependent on teachers to tell them the way to do something,” Stranieri says. “It’s learned helplessness because 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.”
Let kids lead
Asking kids to lead the way and figure things out is the idea behind project-based learning, too. 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, suggests looking for ways to find a local connection to global problems, then inviting local experts to work with the kids.
I think instead of organizing learning in these historic disciplines, meaningless to kids, we ought to introduce them to the biggest problems of our time,” says Vander Ark. “For a teenager to really tackle a global problem and create those real, authentic, community-connected challenges is the only way we can equip kids for what’s headed in their direction.”
Keep in touch with grads
Once a student graduates, it may be tempting to think an educator’s job is done. McLeod says that’s letting go of a big opportunity to evaluate whether we are succeeding.
He suggests teachers or districts keep track of their graduates, then backward map the skill and interpersonal competencies that those students needed to succeed. Getting a cross-section of parents and educators to talk about the vision for graduates of a district would allow districts to assess their success and design for the future.
“Far beyond a simple score on a test, such data would allow us to articulate a more powerful vision of student learning and outcomes around 21st century skills,” McLeod says.
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, and mom to two digital natives.