Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives

| June 23, 2014 | 28 Comments
  • Email Post
Andreas Levers/Flickr

Andreas Levers/Flickr

Business leaders and economic thinkers are worried that today’s students aren’t leaving school with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the workplace. Representatives from tech companies and hiring experts are looking for applicants who show individuality, confidence in their abilities, ability to identify and communicate their strengths, and who are capable of thinking on their feet.

At the recent Next New World conference hosted by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, panelists addressed the question of how the American education system can better prepare students to meet the evolving challenges of the 21st century economy.

Every panelist agreed that right now, the U.S. does not have a system that produces students that meet those needs.

“The problem is not to get incrementally better with our current education system,” said Tony Wagner, expert in residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. “The problem is to reimagine it.” Wagner is not the first to call for a  make-over of the education system, and he certainly isn’t the first to advocate for content that connects with students in authentic ways or that teaches real world skills. His voice joins with the countless educators clamoring for the freedom to pursue those same goals.

“Content knowledge has to be engaging to kids,” Wagner said. “If kids aren’t motivated, you can pour content knowledge in their heads and it comes right out the other ear.” And while critical thinking and communication are important, Wagner said schools are in danger if they stop there. “Above all, they need to be creative problem solvers,” Wagner said.

Wagner highlighted schools in the deeper learning network like New Tech Network, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High and Big Picture as school models that are aiming to fulfill many of these qualities. “Students are learning many more real world skills, as well as content knowledge, through projects,” Wagner said. “They’re doing work worth doing. They’re doing work that’s interesting, and engaging.”

When these factors are woven throughout the school experience, students develop intrinsic motivation to take initiative and find their place in the world. They develop hope for what their future might hold. “Most kids are not low on goals and they’re not low on agency,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. “It’s that they don’t see pathways.”

That’s why Wagner half-jokingly advocated for “Dream Directors” in schools, whose job it would be to help students identify their dreams and scaffold tasks to help students obtain the skills needed for that dream. Over time attention to the needs of individuals would transform the content and delivery methods in schools.

To transform education in ways that have impact, a bottom-up and top-down strategy should be implemented, Wagner said. If parents, students and teachers make their voices heard about what true accountability would look like, they could change the conversation. But the bottom-up strategy will only work, Wagner said, if it’s accompanied by business leaders clearly articulating the outcomes they’d like to see and helping align accountability to those outcomes.

“We need teachers and parents to advocate for a better system,” Wagner said. And perhaps most importantly, students need a voice as education goes through major changes. “We’re not asking students at all about what they think about the quality of their own learning and about what they aspire to learn,” Wagner said.

ALIGNING WITH COLLEGE

The changes and trends in K-12 education often seem completely divorced from higher education and the grueling college application process that lands students at colleges all over the country. But that might be changing. Recently, College Board officials announced they are changing the SAT to better reflect what students learn in school.

The SAT used to be like studying infinity, said David Coleman, President and CEO of the College Board. The new test is meant to focus on fewer standards, but reflect the most important ones more deeply. “Honoring those few things that have disproportionate power is the way through,” Coleman said.

The SAT has been criticized as an unfair measure of what students have learned or know because of the large tutoring industry that has sprung up around it, ensuring that wealthy kids get top scores. But that’s also changing. Recently elite liberal arts colleges like Hampshire and Bard have announced they won’t consider SAT or ACT scores if they’re submitted with an application, because admissions officers don’t believe the tests are a good measure of students’ potential.

The College Board is trying to push back against some of the negative press by partnering with Khan Academy to offer free test prep materials that all students can access. They’re also doing more to reach out to the many qualified students in the lower quartile of income who never apply to university with specialized packets detailing how they can apply for assistance to pay for application fees and tuition.

IS WORK IN COLLEGE MEANINGFUL?

Many educators would argue that even once students make it to college — the stated goal of many high schools — the education they receive there isn’t preparing them to become innovative thinkers and engaged citizens.

Thomas Friedman, Richard Miller and Tony Wagner discuss education at the Next New World Conference in San Francisco. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Thomas Friedman, Richard Miller and Tony Wagner discuss education at the Next New World Conference in San Francisco. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Gallup recently did a study of college graduates to gauge how engaged they are with their work and whether they are thriving in the world. In the past, the most studies centered around on how much college graduates earned compared to peers without degrees.

The survey found that student who felt supported — that their professors cared about them as individuals, that professors made them want to learn, that they had a mentor — were three times more likely to thrive as those who did not feel supported. Only 14 percent of college graduates answered that all three of those qualities were present in their college experience.

Even fewer college graduates found their higher education experience to be relevant to life and work after college. Only six percent reported with strong affirmatives that they worked on a long term project (at least a semester), had an internship where they could apply skills, and were very engaged in an extracurricular. If a graduate answered “strongly agree” to all three of these qualities he or she was three times as likely to be engaged at work.

These numbers show that colleges, like K-12 institutions, need to care for individual learners. Feeling connected and mentored makes a difference, just as understanding how learning is relevant and applicable makes students feel prepared for life after college. Without a move in that direction, the U.S. risks continuing to educate young people who go into the workplace disengaged and less likely to thrive.

OLIN COLLEGE TRIES NEW MODEL

The founders of Olin College identified the gap in skilled workers ready for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math and decided to start over with a completely different kind of university. To apply, students visit the college and work in groups on projects. College staff are evaluating them for how they will fit in at the university, primarily looking for strong problem solvers and people who know how to make things.

“Its purpose is to produce education innovators,” said Richard Miller, president and professor at Olin College. The Massachusetts college is an education laboratory. There are no departments, no tenure, no tuition and the curriculum has an expiration date so that it stays relevant.

“Olin is essentially a ‘maker’ university,” Miller said. In one class, students are asked to identify a group of people whose lives they want to change. Through research and interviews they develop a sociological profile of the group that is used to come up with two to three systems, devices or technologies that don’t already exist and that the group says would make a difference in their lives. Students then develop the specifications for the product and show how to build it. By the end of the course they have the outline for a patent.

“By the time they graduate a significant fraction of them already have companies they are working on,” Miller said. While the school focuses on STEM, students learn about business too. Miller hopes these students leave school thinking about how they can change the world, not about what job they will get. “We are taking too narrow of a view of what the sciences are and trying to make them too technical,” Miller said. In his mind, an innovator is someone who changes something so profoundly people can’t remember how it was before.

“Students are the power tools of change in education,” Miller said. “They are the most ignored and they have the most at stake.” But, as Olin has found, when they are given free range to design, make and innovate they can be very powerful examples of what a great education can produce.

Related

Explore: ,

  • Email Post
  • http://www.tutormentorexchange.net/ Daniel Bassill

    While business leaders challenge schools to do more, I suggest they challenge each other to do more to support youth as they move through school and into jobs. Here’s a strategy map that could be adopted by leaders in any industry. http://tinyurl.com/tmc-strategy-map

    Here’s a set of articles suggesting roles business could take, engaging their employee talent, their technology, their dollars, etc. http://tutormentorexchange.net/leadership-strategies

  • Pingback: I want to be the Chief Dreamer. | Shaping the Vision

  • Robert Thorn

    Great article! Nice response Daniel. I agree, businesses also need to start demanding and accepting the sorts of qualifications and experience kids need to get into jobs.

    One point, if College board changes to SATs to reflect better what gets taught in schools (that’s good) but better, let’s make sure what happens in schools is right. People are going on about creativity and critical thinking but as mentioned here these are not enough. They are aspects of something bigger we have to do but in a way it’s simpler. We have to refocus education away from teacher-centered, not worry about student-centered, move through learner-centered and leap frog to what I call learner-development-centered education. It’s basically making sure that, whatever happens at school (or at home when kids take it on board), learner attributes are developed. If you want to know more about it, feel free to contact me and our NGO which aims to push this through: Developing Real Learners. https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=62066866&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile

  • Robert Thorn

    Great article! Nice response Daniel. I agree, businesses also need to start demanding and accepting the sorts of qualifications and experience kids need to get into jobs.

    One point, if College board changes to SATs to reflect better what gets taught in schools (that’s good) but better, let’s make sure what happens in schools is right. People are going on about creativity and critical thinking but as mentioned here these are not enough. They are aspects of something bigger we have to do but in a way it’s simpler. We have to refocus education away from teacher-centered, not worry about student-centered, move through learner-centered and leap frog to what I call learner-development-centered education. It’s basically making sure that, whatever happens at school (or at home when kids take it on board), learner attributes are developed. If you want to know more about it, feel free to contact me and our NGO which aims to push this through: Developing Real Learners. https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=62066866&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile

  • Casey1

    Changes in the U.S. economy, demographics and labor market have altered the
    requirements for education, career and technical training. A par-excellent
    public education system is essential for America’s competitiveness in a
    digitally driven, knowledge-based and global workforce economy where every
    American youth is competing in a global supply chain!

    America’s unbridled belief in college-for-all policy inadvertently prevents youth and others from seeing the full range of desirable career options. There is a divide
    between college preparation and vocational curricula that induce students, parents, teachers and others to see vocational and career education as inferior rather than engaging and contextually related to their interests and skill set needs of the economy.

    An article published in the Journal for Workforce Education entitled: America’s Skilled Workforce Shortage and Disconnected Youth: A Systemic Policy Strategy, promotes economic growth with disconnected youth as an intrinsic ingredient to close America’s skilled gap, increase high school and college graduation rates. Public policies are reviewed that provide unintended consequences for disconnected youth, career, technical and industrial training.

    Here’s the link: http://www.iotalambdasigma.com/volume_4_1_14.pdf

  • Pingback: Employers Say Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | LVenture

  • ren_man

    Just another variation of teaching to the test. The test will now be do you the skill set of the moment that a particular industry demands. A skill set that changes so rapidly anymore that there is little chance of accurately hitting the moving target.

    As is hinted at in the discussion of Olin, there has to be a better way. A way that does not focus on a “skill set” but upon a “learning set”. Instead of teaching skills, we should be teaching “learning” — that students can self-learn the requisite “skill” that is needed to solve a given challenge. We hear so much about teaching people to be “critical thinkers”, but is this really what is happening? Are we teaching a thought process that can be applied to any challenge or are we falling into the trap of industry specific processes that have little or no cross application?

    Further, are we teaching them to “create”? Olin seems to be heading in this direction.

    Consider the likes of the greatest inventors: DaVinci, Edison, Disney — they all “created” without having been “taught” a process first that was industry specific, by like Olin’s system – they identified a need and then learned what was need to create a solution.

    But notice the glaring omission in Olin’s curriculum: the ARTS.

    Studies repeatedly have shown that many if not most of our greatest scientist, lawyers, doctors, inventors all have had a background in the ARTS.

    The ARTS — the domain of learning and expression that has been doing the critical thinking and creating for eons that others are just now it seems realizing are at the apex of humanity activity.

    Yet we focus on STEM — much like saying “here, dear, I brought 12 long rose stems sans buds”, instead of insisting that we go full STEAM ahead using the arts to enhance learning and the solutions to the many modern challenges we face.

    • InspectorMG

      I whole-heartedly agree. Noone can pinpoint exactly what students are going to do in life, therefore the purpose of skills is to provide the foundational skills and critical thinking to transfer to any industry. By he end of high school, students should be prepared to make decisions as to whether they want to attend college, enter the workforce or become an entrepreneur.
      Education today is geared towards a specific set of questions, answers and courses. If anything is presented to teachers or students outside of that list, they are lost. We need to get back to the reality of courses being taught by educators with passion and expertise, students required to respect leadership and others so they can learn the basics as well as the possibilities in life. Everyone is living for the present instead of preparing for the future, as well.

  • Pingback: What makes University graduates thrive post graduation?-Gallup Poll | ollie lovell

  • Old Vermonter

    What are all these business experts doing to change the widening gap between rich and poor? How much of the enormous corporate profits are being poured into research and development? What about the corporate decisions to move well-paying manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving dead-end service jobs for American workers? It’s easy for fat cats like Tom Friedman, who married into one of America’s richest families, to sit around and talk about what schools should do. As long as the wealthy are attacking public schools, they don’t have to look in the mirror.

    • Craig

      Here here, the most cogent comments on this whole article!!!!!!

  • Pingback: Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | dennisowen

  • Pingback: Katrina Schwartz: Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | SCORE

  • Endre Polyak

    Wow! Finally somebody is talking about the nitty-gritty of education.

  • Pingback: Learning by Doing: The Center for Inspiration, Innovation, and Investigation | INSPIRATION . INNOVATION . INVESTIGATION

  • Pingback: Consider Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | MindSh ift | So. Consider

  • Pingback: Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | MindShift | New York State DCDT

  • Pingback: Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives

  • Pingback: Employers’ Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | Learning and Peace of Mind

  • Ed Jones

    If anybody knows a business person (preferably in or near Ohio) who would put $500 or more into a statewide experiment in student-selected, re-imagined, relevant learning, … I sure would like to talk with them.

  • Vik Vein

    I know how most
    of young people feel, when they get their diploma. They feel ambitious but
    helpless. It happens because the
    knowledge they got, usually just don`t have much in common with the things they
    are going to do in real life, and the second problem is that employers need
    experienced workers. So that`s why I apply for ready college papers here helponessay and spend
    most of my time trying to learn all the niceties of my profession. Fortunately,
    I can get my first experience working with my father.

  • T_H
  • Vik Vein

    I know how most
    of young people feel, when they get their diploma. They feel ambitious but
    helpless. It happens because the
    knowledge they got, usually just don`t have much in common with the things they
    are going to do in real life, and the second problem is that employers need
    experienced workers. So that`s why I apply for ready college papers here helponessay and spend
    most of my time trying to learn all the niceties of my profession. Fortunately,
    I can get my first experience working with my father.

  • Pingback: Creating The Education System We Need | Actualization

  • Gary Hoeffken

    I invite these business leaders in Oklahoma to my classroom any time and have for years. I have never seen one, yet. Come spend a week with me, preparing lessons, being an edutainer, work with extreme diversity, get us technology we need and we can help provide what you need when we have more tools in our toolbag. OKC Business Leaders, I challenge you to join me in 5th grade for a full day or a full week and give me and my students suggestions for the future.

  • Pingback: Employers Challenge Educators: Make School Relevant to Students’ Lives | Actualization

  • Pingback: The link between employability and international student recruitment - ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment

  • Pingback: Students Not Equipped with the Necessary Skills To Succeed in the Workplace – A Report from the Next New World Conference | Precision Plus, Inc.'s Blog