21st Century Workers

I learned early to play the “school game.” Do what is expected of you. Please the teacher. Don’t make trouble. Don’t ask questions. They will give you information. Then, they’ll ask you to give it back. If you follow the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good grade. Good grades will get you into a good college, which will get you a good job. It’s all good. We have it all figured out. Just do what you’re told.

But we don’t really have it figured out anymore. While a college education makes you twice as employable as not having one, some are suggesting that the cost of higher education does not make it a worthwhile investment. And with the unemployment rate among recent college grads at its highest level on record, a whole lot of grads are going to have trouble paying off those student loans.

At the same time, it’s becoming clear that the job market is demanding skills that schools are not providing. NPR’s Planet Money team took a look at a factory in South Carolina this week. The series examines the changing workforce, and the changing demands placed on current and prospective workers. Reporter Adam Davidson asked if he could get a job there:

“No,” he said. “The risk of having you being able to come up to speed with training would be a risk I wouldn’t be willing to take.”

To become [a good worker], I’d have to learn the machine’s computer language. I’d have to learn the strengths of various metals and their resistance to various blades. And then there’s something I don’t believe I’d ever be able to achieve: the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in my head. Half the people… trained over the years just never were able to get that skill.

The company can teach the knowledge needed to do the job. That’s not a problem. What they can’t teach is the ability to visualize what’s going on. They can’t teach the innovative thinking and problem solving skills. Their workers have to come in with those skills.

Where are they going to get those skills? In the K-12 world, we’re still focused on imparting knowledge. Our teachers are content specialists. They’re experts at teaching information. And while there’s been a push toward higher level thinking skills in education for longer than I’ve been part of the field, there’s still not a lot of it going on in our schools.

In a different NPR piece this week, Emily Hanford examined flipped physics classrooms at the college level. Harvard has determined that lecturing is not an effective  teaching technique. And with information easily and freely available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, some would argue that spending class time to  impart information is now irresponsible. In physics, they found that students could memorize the formulas and plug them in to get the correct answers to problems, but that doesn’t mean they had an understanding of the underlying concepts. Harvard professor Eric Mazur has changed his approach to teaching physics. Students are expected to do background reading to get the “information” before class. Then, in class, they focus on making sense of that information. Class time is devoted to application of the concepts, not memorization of the facts.

We’re starting to see this in K-12 as well. More and more teachers are changing their approaches to embrace next generation skills. There are plenty of reliable sources for explaining the information. We don’t need teachers to do that anymore. We need teachers to help students make sense of the information, to draw connections between the things they’ve learned, to apply their understanding of concepts in order to solve challenging problems.

So our students will leave with knowledge. Sure. Yes. Of course. But they’ll also know how to learn. They’ll know how to connect ideas. They’ll know how to apply their understanding of one concept to different situations. They’ll be ready to face the challenges of their generation.

Photo credit: Avram Cheaney on Flick.

One thought on “21st Century Workers

  1. Very good and thoughtful piece, John. Thanks for commenting on this need to change our educational focus.

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