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Schools must cultivate skills that translate to work

Rethink Ed Workplace

Education must include practical opportunities to fail and take risks, and to gain real-world experience that develops the skills typically absent from syllabi.

Does high school adequately prepare students for the workforce? Former high school educator David Muhammad doesn’t think so. He says students are learning to “do school,” when doing well in school doesn’t necessarily translate to doing well in the workforce.

“They go off into colleges and into the workplace, and they’re told to figure it out or create, and they’re like: ‘Okay, but what’s the lesson plan? What’s the formula?’ Muhammad said. “And we’re telling them: ‘There is no formula, this is the end goal; find it.’ And a lot of times they don’t know how to do that.”

Since June, Muhammad has worked as the manager of collaborative partnerships for an education innovation organization called LEANLAB Education. He left his teaching position at Shawnee Mission East High School, because he wanted a chance to make systems-level change.

[Students] are told to figure it out or create, and they’re like: ‘Okay, but what’s the lesson plan? What’s the formula?’ And we’re telling them: ‘There is no formula, this is the end goal; find it.’ And a lot of times they don’t know how to do that.

David Muhammad
manager of collaborative partnerships, LEANLAB Education

He said that most modern workplaces are not interested in young people who can’t think creatively. So, when school is simply based on good grades and does not offer students practical opportunities to fail and take risks, students won’t know how to begin a constructive, creative process after graduation.

Anna Hennes is the lead program manager of community partnerships and talent pipelines at Cerner, a healthcare technology company in Kansas City, Missouri. As the company has worked with high schoolers in the past 10 years, she’s seen that, in spite of an apparent gap between what students learn in school and the rapidly changing demands of the workplace, the young people and educators she works with are rising to the challenge.

She’s noticed that the students who come through year after year are not so different from each other. “The constant remains that everybody’s trying to figure out who they are. That doesn’t change. But probably the preparedness that they come to us with does change, because the system around them is adapting.”

Hennes said that even after college, new hires require a great deal of training on how to work. They lack the ability to collaborate, communicate, and receive feedback.

LEANLAB is piloting innovations in eight school settings including charter schools and public schools in both Kansas and Missouri. They’re working to find shared problems throughout these systems and to identify teachers who have found innovative solutions that can be incubated and scaled to support the student transition to adulthood.

“You have to recreate the way schools are made,” Muhammad said. “It means giving kids the space to get outside of the classroom and bringing in professionals who are experts in those fields to give kids an earlier opportunity to ideate on what they want to do. We shouldn’t be waiting till junior or senior year to ask a kid, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?'”

Hennes said that for many years, high schools have been requesting speakers from Cerner who could go into a classroom and speak about an industry. While this has exposed students to what jobs are available, it hasn’t helped in development of needed skills like flexibility, creativity, tenacity, being self-driven, and the ability to work with others. Cerner has also accepted high schoolers as interns, which while giving those learners a leg up on their peers with the early exposure to crucial skills, and is instrumental in preparing students for work, it’s not scalable, Hennes said. If a technique or solution in education can’t be broadened to include the majority of students, education innovators will need to keep searching for a fix.

But, in a way, that fix will need to fight history.

Skills that translate

Todd Kern, co-founder of 2Revolutions, a national education design lab striving to transform education, opens many of his presentations with a video about the history of education in the United States. It’s just a glimpse at the topic at under five minutes, but the upshot is this: Education as we have known it for more than 100 years is based on a Prussian model that encouraged uniformity and efficiency in order to train obedient soldiers and competent factory workers.

However, an education model that’s based on turning out people who are used as tools is no longer useful in workplaces that are increasingly automated by actual tools – really smart tools at that.

Kern said that when he thinks of designing a new education system, he asks communities for a current definition of success, as well as what they want for their young people. He has found that the answers are not skills that are currently taught in K-12 education.

“Anything that is knowable or memorizable is ‘Googleable’ and, therefore, it’s not that useful,” Kern said of the learning model in place now. “[A new model would be] more about helping students learn how to learn and college readiness, career readiness, agency, communication, collaboration, creativity, stick-to-it-iveness, grit, conflict resolution, identity.”

In other words, even if a student’s mind is brimming with knowledge, if the student lacks the ability to use it, tailor it to the situation, combine it with the knowledge of others, or ask the right questions, what good is it?

What many companies and school districts are angling toward more recently are client projects, Hennes said. This type of project can happen in a classroom setting, but it relies on a partnership with business. A company will hand a real-world problem to a classroom or group of students and ask them to formulate a solution. This approach benefits a large number of students all at once, unlike internships, so it’s considered a scalable solution.

“The beauty of authentic project-based work is that you’re meeting multiple objectives in terms of your graduation requirements,” Hennes said. “You’re having to do research and writing and probably a little bit of math.”

And a whole lot of problem-solving and team-building that is absolutely translatable to the real-world workforce.

The key is adding relevance to students’ learning experiences, Kern said. “Specifically, being exposed to real problems that real companies are working on makes it more authentic, but the group aspect of the work also forces them to practice working collaboratively.”

Yet, while there are signs that some in education are beginning to rethink curricula with an eye toward the skills typically absent from syllabi at all grade levels, Kern believes that the world has shifted faster than schools have been able to keep pace. “Schools and districts need to be empowered and supported to close that gap, so kids get what they need to succeed.”