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College and Career Readiness; "What is the Purpose of School?"

What is the purpose of school? Some will say schools are necessary to prepare students for subsequent life stages. For some, this is additional formal education, for others, it may be launching a career. Others will argue schools are essential for creating educated contributors to democracy. Sadly, many families regard schools as daycare centers. When I asked students, "what is the purpose of school?", The most common responses were "I don't know" and "to prepare students for something." These seemingly uninspired responses are actually rather insightful.

We live in an era of exponentially accelerating change. How can educators be expected to know what the future holds? Are traditional school structures and curricula preparing students for their "something"? Media is brimming with reports, many contradicting, about job automation, machine learning, and the changing nature of work. We are also seeing numerous reports of people earning college degrees, but remain mostly unprepared for their chosen career field. Are students leaving school with the skills and dispositions employers desiderate?

I serve on one of several district committees currently investigating career pathways. The intention is to provide information to our students so they can customize their academic program to fit their interests and aspirations. With graduation requirements and a high-stakes testing regimen firmly entrenched, an entirely self-determined curriculum is not a current reality. The work of our committees shows the notion of a "personalized" academic program has been nudged from sporadic conversation to early stages of implementation.

A few weeks ago, our subcommittee, representing the "travel and hospitality" field, reviewed current course offerings conducive to preparing students with interests in careers such as hotel management, event planning, and tourism. Following our self-assessment, we met with officials from area businesses and higher education. It was valuable to get professionals' perspectives on the programming provided to our students. More importantly, we received direct suggestions on the types of skills and experiences employers seek from our graduates. The following list summarizes their recommendations.
  • Communication skills - employers want people who are competent communicators. This includes oral, written, and non-verbal forms of communication. Fluency in more than one language is highly valued.
  • Collaboration skills - employers want people who productively contribute to project teams.
  • Decision-making and Problem-solving - employers want people who can use available resources to make decisions quickly, as well as, solve problems creatively.
  • Numeracy skills - employers want people who have accounting skills and the ability to perform mathematical computations.
  • Character - employers want conscientious people who are honest and show empathy for others.
A prevailing theme from our conversations, employers would prefer to invest in training a high-character candidate with lesser education, than invest time in a highly educated prospect with character flaws. The so-called "soft-skills" often given lower priority in schools are in fact the most valued. Our survey closely parallels skills identified in the World Economic Forum's Executive Summary, "The Future of Jobs; Employment, Skills, and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution".  Futurist, Stowe Boyd, suggests the list provided by the World Economic Forum may already be outdated. His "Workfutures" readiness list emphasizes curiosity, creativity, and adaptability.

Predicting the future is a challenging, if not futile, endeavor. However, it is imperative for educators to review and discuss emerging trends. As we have learned, it's necessary to bring many voices to the table if schools are to fulfill a purpose of serving their respective communities. Desired dispositions are difficult to assess. Putting student interests first means letting go of traditional teaching paradigms and embracing a culture of learning. These initiatives remind me of author and educator, David Perkins and his invitation to "educate for the unknown".

What changes can our schools make to better prepare students for an uncertain future?

Related Reading

"Future of Work: Building Entrepreneurship..." - Jessica Slusser, Getting Smart, Feb. 2018.

"Ready and Working: Pathway Programs..." - Derek Newton, Getting Smart, Nov. 2017.

"How Big Data Can Inform the Future of Re-skilling" - Getting Smart, Feb. 2018.

"The Future of Education Includes..." - Shireen Jaffer, Getting Smart, Feb. 2018.

photo credit: PeterThoeny She was left in awe via photopin (license)


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