Monday, March 2, 2015

What Future are we Preparing our Students for?

When we look at the recent history of education in this country, we find that there has always been a clear purpose and intent to education. Education was made compulsory to remove children from the workforce and allow the jobs to go to adults trying to provide for their families. Additionally, in an industrial society, we needed a workforce that was educated and trained to do the work required by the particular industry. This was a time when specialization was on the rise. A person could find a job doing a very specific task and do that task every day for 20-30 years. With the introduction of outsourcing and the evolution of certain industries (as well as the recent recession), jobs dried up and a whole generation of people prepared to do one task well, found themselves without any opportunity to perform that task.

In many communities and towns, the expectation was that unless you went away to college, you would join the local industry (usually a factory or something similar). Today, those industries have dried up, taking those jobs with them. Unfortunately, many educational institutions failed to adapt in time to provide an alternate type of training for their students to prepare them for this economical shift. As a result, students seeing very few prospects for themselves, came to rely on public assistance, drugs or some other nefarious means of obtaining income.

It has often been said that today's student is preparing for a job that hasn't been created yet. This speaks to the constant changing in technologies and industries that we experience. What this also means is that our current set up may not be the best way to prepare our students. In an earlier blog post, I suggested that perhaps CTE schools got it right. They offer a blend of traditional learning along with equal parts of hands-on, practical training. In these schools when students ask the question, "Why do I need to know this?", they see why within the next half of the class when they are putting what they learned in the classroom into practice.

Of course, preparing for a job yet unknown is a difficult proposition. Unlike the previous labor intense jobs, the exact skill set needed to perform the job well is not known. There has been a shift from physical jobs to more intellectual jobs. Don't get me wrong, there will always be a need for mechanics (though even that industry has become very technology driven), plumbers, electricians, and the slew of civil servants that are required to help a city run. However, as the number of factory jobs is reduced and those individuals, having no other skills, apply for civil service jobs, the competition for them increases. As our economic structure shifts to the so-called intellectual job, the more technology-related jobs, there has to be a different way to prepare our students. Some of the more common skills and traits that employers and colleges/universities look for are communication, organization, leadership, working with others, and entrepreneurship. These are very broad in nature, rather than being highly specialized. At the same time, how do you teach these?

Where our schools fail currently is that they haven't taught our students HOW to think. They do a fine job telling out students WHAT to think.  If our students are to be prepared to excel in our new technology-based society, our educational institutions need to focus more on the HOW and not so much on the WHAT. Those students who are able to make something out of nothing or very little will have an advantage over those who cannot. Those who are able to think critically and make connections that are not so obvious will fare better than those who cannot. How do we make sure our students are able to develop these skills?

While I do not have the answers ... yet ... the conversation needs to be had as to how we will adjust, if not totally revamp our current educational system. Many people are quick to speak disparagingly about charter schools, but many of them take this alternative path to education. There is more of a focus on the development of the aforementioned skills while learning specific subjects. They are willing and admittedly more able to provide more opportunities to develop these skills. Many traditional public schools are following suit with their scheduling and pairing of classes or through the creation of academies. It is this structure that will help to prepare our students. Some schools have formed partnerships with mentoring groups to help provide insight into what students can expect in their futures (look out for future posts regarding mentoring and its effect on our students). So while students may not know WHAT to prepare for the future, they will certainly know HOW to prepare for it.