Teaching for a World That Doesn't Exist (Yet)

Monday, April 27, 2015 -- Scott Sterling

Fifty years ago, education policy was (relatively) easy. Leaders and teachers knew that students through high school would need to be able to read at increasingly complicated levels, write to match those levels, perform math functions up to algebra, and have a basic understanding of history and science. More specialized skills would be developed in college.

That’s not the case today. The truth is that, for the first time in organized education, no one knows what today’s students will need to succeed. The only thing we can do is teach students how to think critically and be flexible. 

I recently attended a talk from Gary Marx, the author of 21 Trends for the 21st Century. He has made a career of looking to the future and helping position people and organizations for that future based on current measurable trends. One point in particular stuck with me:

Sixty percent of new jobs will require skills that only 20 percent of workers currently have.

That’s a big disparity. What are we doing to shrink that gap? For all of their shortcomings, in my opinion the Common Core and similar next-generation standards are the best we can do right now. We can’t teach students how to use technologies that haven’t been invented yet, but we can give them the tools to be able to sort out learning for themselves when the time comes—tools like communication skills, critical thinking, and flexibility.

Case in point is this blog post from Lifehacker titled Career Spotlight: What I do as a Software Architect. The software architect interviewed, Harrison Ambs, tells us about his job. What’s interesting is that he has received no formal training for being a software architect. He went to school for aerospace engineering, dropped out to become a 3D modeler, joined his current company, and then made a job for himself—one that may not have existed when he first got out of school.

This type of scenario will become more and more commonplace. Ambs’ company needed someone able to articulate the needs of its clients to the developers and engineers of the software, someone with both management and technical skills. He wasn’t afraid to challenge himself to move ahead.

So what can you do to best prepare students for the unknown future?

First, have them question absolutely everything. The facts of today might not be the facts of tomorrow. Being able to fit square pegs into round holes, for lack of a better term, is a key skill in the 21st century workplace. Students should strive to be flexible enough in order to take one of these new jobs that may not exist yet.

Second, be honest. When a student asks “Where am I going to use this?” don’t come up with a scenario (unless you’re sure it’s going to be around in 30 years). Tell them the truth: almost no one has the job he or she prepared for in school. Bring up an example like Ambs or one that applies to a particular discipline. Keep in mind that, more so than ever before, the goal of school today is not to teach students facts and figures; it is to teach students how to learn.

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