'Schools should prepare students for the world of work, not college entrance exams'

2nd November 2016 at 13:21
Teachers, schools, students, curriculum, skills education
Students are not developing the attributes they need to succeed in life: schools must revamp the curriculum to focus on skills.

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The school system is failing to prepare young people for the world of work because it is too focused on “obsolete” college entrance requirements, according to a leading advocate for reform.

Schools need to give much more attention to what employers want from school leavers to close the ‘education-to-employment’ gap, says Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

Here, the academic and author, explains his views on the skills that school students should be taught.

Charles, how do you respond to employers’ concerns that students don’t have the skills needed to be productive in their companies?

For the past two decades, employers have stated that they are looking for employees able to display the “4 C’s”: to think Critically – solve problems and draw sound decisions – as well as working Creatively, and able to Communicate and Collaborate on a systematic basis.

This is the framework we developed at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21).

We have seen surveys done by, among others, the Conference Board and P21, and the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) at OECD, highlighting that the “4 C’s described matter more than ever for employability the world over. This is not a new need, but it has been growing in importance as competition and time-to-market pressures intensify.

It is of course fair to say that employers expect from schools and higher education systems that students be ready for the world of work as well as world of life. They go hand-in-hand and there’s nothing wrong in educating for both employability and life.

What would you say to a recent graduate who worked hard at a very expensive institution and who has not been able to find full-time work with good benefits?

First, I’d say, “you have all my sympathy, I am sorry the system did not offer you better guidance, particularly given the price you paid. Brands matter, of course, but so do real skills, and the present system is focused on passing college, not really on employability.”

Then I’d say, “if you are still in college, make sure that you do many internships and projects with industry. And regardless of whether before or after graduation, realistically and honestly document how you have developed those real skills via each course, so you can discuss that during your interviews.”

Let’s talk about skills. What are the essential skills being left out of curriculum or that are not getting enough emphasis in curriculum?

First, let’s be clear in indicating that this is about skills not character qualities – these have been covered elsewhere before. The skills we are talking about are: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. They are essential for both the world of work and success in life.

Now of course, present-day education achieves a certain amount of that, with varying degrees of success. Firstly, there is the assumption that teaching a discipline will necessarily foster higher-order thinking skills. It is mostly unfounded, as fast and broad coverage of materials typically supersedes the deeper learning that needs to occur.

Secondly, pedagogy needs to change – for instance, it is hard to imagine how a passive listener would learn how to communicate and collaborate.

What are the primary drawbacks in the way current curriculum is organized in terms of developing the needed skills?

Present-day curriculum in schools and higher education assumes that these skills will be naturally developed as the students acquired knowledge. But nothing can be further from the truth: knowledge can remain completely inert. Skills are how knowledge is used but one can learn in a rote way and never deepen skills.

A long-standing debate in education hinges on the false assumption that teaching skills will detract from teaching knowledge; this is a false dichotomy as studies have shown that when knowledge is learned passively without skills, it is often learned at the superficial level and therefore does not readily transfer to new environments.

Deep understanding and actionability for the real world will occur only by embedding skills within the knowledge domain such that each enhances the other.

What steps need to be taken to better integrate the development of the essential skills into curriculum?

There are three steps that need to be taken to better integrate skills into the curriculum: First of all, re-examining the curriculum for obsolete areas so as to free up time and space for deeper learning to occur, hence skill development. For instance, if we are serious about using mathematics to help develop creativity, this must allow for exploration and inquiry about various possibilities. Thus the need for time, which implies carefully curating topics of less importance.

Second, the identification of which part of the curriculum is more suited for teaching which skill: every single discipline can cover every single skill deeply, but some are well-suited for specific skills, by their very nature: caricaturally perhaps, maths for critical thinking, language for communication, arts for creativity, etc.

And third, the training of teachers to know how to activate those mechanisms, in concert with other specialists helping out on a topic-by-topic basis, from inside as well as outside the school (including professionals from industry). There is no reason for the educators to be so isolated.

How can employers and educators work together on skills?

Employers have to remain involved in making their needs heard, and education institutions have to accept that we educate for life and work, not only life – this is a false dichotomy. Life is difficult for most people without work, which brings not only income, but also self-esteem and satisfaction in making contributions.

The original version of this article first appeared in The Global Search for Education series on CMRubinWorld.  Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld

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