The labor market today is unpredictable, jobs in fields once thought safe are now at risk of obsolescence thanks to advances in technology and automation.
The da Vinci Surgical System, a surgical robot, is cleared by the FDA to perform surgery under the direction of a surgeon. Application Tracking Systems scan resumes for contextual keywords and key phrases and send only the most qualified ones through for human review.
Although countless meaningful future positions have not yet been invented, it’s safe to say that filling these availabilities won’t be easy, because the worker shortage will be acute in the area of high-skilled, knowledge-based jobs.
Is our education system preparing our youth for this future?
The popular approaches some of our provinces such as British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario have taken has been to revamp the education system to an inquiry-based or project-based learning model in hopes that children will have higher success learning essential skills such as collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking. However, the implementation of this model of learning without adequate teacher training, education and support leads to replacing one failing system with another.
Education expert Tony Wagner, Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, and an Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, has identified seven survival skills of the future. Over the course of 13 years working with students ranging in age from 2 to 19, I’ve encountered student deficiencies a clear, structured plan could address. Recent trends in education like no-homework and no-zero policies, though well-intentioned, work against the structure and accountability that are foundations of successful students.
Here’s what it would look like to implement Wagner’s seven skills.
1. Critical thinking and problem solving
Education is supposed to encourage critical thinking and problem solving, but most schools today ask very little from students. Many students are sent home without homework, and if there is work to be done, the questions are simple and don’t require deep thinking.
The simplification of the curriculum through content cuts has led to teachers merely brushing the surface in course material. Math classes, in particular, devote a lot of time to reviewing, and the only time students may see challenging problems is on their tests. If they aren’t expected to work on harder questions across the curriculum, it’s unreasonable to expect them to rise to the challenge during assessments.
The province of Ontario revamped its education system to inquiry-based learning in hopes of raising provincial standardized test scores. Inquiry-based learning models use creative and unconventional approaches to give students a lot of control over their learning, which usually leads to reduced testing, cuts in the curriculum, and learning through play or projects. Not only has this approach not led to improvements, only half of grade 6 students met provincial standards in math this year, down from 57 percent four years ago.
Schools already have the means to teach effective collaboration. A few group projects a year ensure that students have a chance to work together and learn effective teamwork skills. However, in many group projects, students who are weaker in their foundational skills or those who are introverted tend to sit back and not contribute and miss the opportunity to learn through collaboration.
Teachers can take subtle steps to make sure everyone participates. One example is the teacher dividing the project as a whole into smaller tasks between the group members and assign responsibilities to each student. Another way is to ask everyone to think about how they would approach the project individually before coming together and brainstorm. These practices ensure that everyone’s input is heard and considered.
3. Agility and adaptability
Learning the process of mastery and overcoming failures teaches students to be agile and adaptable. The deeper you dig in, the more challenging problems you face and the more opportunities you have to learn from mistakes.
As a STEM graduate, I failed many times during my chemistry master’s thesis project, and with every failed experiment in the lab, I regrouped and tried a different approach.
It’s important for students to learn the value of failure, as ‘experiments’ often play out in unexpected ways. There are lessons to take away from many of those unexpected outcomes. My failures taught me grit, adaptability, and mental agility. When I finished my master’s thesis project successfully, the work I’d given to adapting, adjusting and persevering made it that much more meaningful to me.
Promoting students when they’re not ready to move ahead robs them of the chance to learn perseverance and hinders their ability to adapt and learn from failures.
4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
To foster initiative and entrepreneurship students must already have a strong knowledge base to be able to ask good questions. They must also be willing to learn from failures and be able to analyze what went wrong that led them to fail in the first place. The process of mastery automatically teaches students the skills they need to take the initiative in any learning situation.
Many students today cannot learn from failures because No-Zero policies and grade inflation allow them to move ahead without having to put in much effort; and even when teachers take a stand against these policies, many are disciplined.
Our education system is in desperate need of scrapping these policies and practices that hurt student initiative.
5. Effective oral and written communication
Effective oral and written communication require one to read and write – a lot. However, since homework, tests, and grades are often scapegoated as the enemy, many students are reading very little or reading texts that are too simple. As an example, this year a Florida school district introduced a no-homework policy for elementary students and instead asked kids to read for 20 minutes every night. In my experience, when students aren’t asked to do anything with the reading material, they don’t focus on what is in front of them. They may look at the book, highlight, or read out loud, but there’s no guarantee they understand the content. They must somehow use the material they’re assigned to showcase their knowledge.
We are not doing students any favors by helping them cruise through their K-12 education. Our brains are wired to learn through struggle, challenge, and learning from mistakes. Removing these essential learning components will reduce students’ ability to learn.
6. Assessing and analyzing information
Assessing and analyzing information requires students to identify patterns and apply strategies to break down information for analysis. That requires background knowledge and critical thinking that students learn only through practice.
In the latest International PISA tests, performance in mathematics dropped for students from both Canada and the United States. The test, run by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), measures students’ ability to “employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts to describe, predict and explain phenomena…“. The test also assesses students’ ability to “recognize the role that mathematics plays in the world in order to make well-founded judgments and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens.”
Our students today aren’t as strong in problem-solving as they were in early 2000’s, and to improve their skills to assess and analyze, schools must focus on teaching high-quality math.
7. Curiosity and imagination
Students are inherently curious and have fantastic imaginations. The trick is to not kill this imagination and curiosity by making school easy for them. They need to be challenged – whether it’s writing a personal essay to express themselves or designing a science experiment to showcase their ideas.
To improve imagination and creativity in schools, try raising your standards – set the bar high and expect quality and creativity in students’ work. Mike Tachynski, a school teacher from Edmonton, who faced discipline for defying the No-Zero marking policy told trustees that giving students zeros prompted them to complete tests and assignments. “Instantly the urgency was there,” he said. “The following morning I had five kids waiting at my door at 7:30 in the morning waiting to get some of these zeros cleaned up”. The No-Zero policies or automatic promotion to the next grade hurts students’ curiosity and motivation to create quality work.
It’s true that schools are not preparing students for the skills they need for their future, but the solution is not to revamp our education system haphazardly. Inquiry-based learning requires a high quality of teacher education, training, and support, and is not possible with current teacher training programs.
A high-quality education that engages students, keeps them challenged, and prepares them for their future isn’t as costly and complicated as widely believed. Implementing the seven skills with structure and a framework that encourages consistency and accountability benefits teachers and students alike, be it in the short term, with improved classroom outcomes, or the long term, through the formation of consistent, productive work habits.
Author: Mehrnaz Bassiri, M.Sc.