How Do We Ensure Our Students are Career Ready?

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As a teacher, have you ever found yourself lying awake at night worrying that your students weren’t being adequately prepared for their future careers? The world outside the school walls has changed at a rapid pace while much of how we do business in schools has not changed. A new report published by the IDC (International Data Corporation) confirms what many teachers fear – simply consuming information and learning traditional skills is not enough to prepare our students for their future.

Think about the last time you were asked to summarize a Shakespearean play, had to explain the Pythagorean Theorem, or write a formal letter in longhand. I am as guilty as the next teacher of struggling to let go of our teacher-centric liberal arts education, and move towards a more student-centered pragmatic approach to teaching and learning. Teaching practices that used to be considered vital to maintaining a civil society, are out of touch with what our students need to be successful in today’s world.

Students need to learn to be critical thinkers of information. That means they are expected to analyze or synthesize information already out there, critically evaluate what they are learning, and create new knowledge using the skills they develop. They need to be self-motivated, self-directed and quick to respond to others needs. They need real-world instruction that is relevant to today’s issues.

The way employees are expected to communicate in the 21st Century requires a skill set not yet fully embraced by schools. Face-to-face communication now competes with virtual communication through email and social media. Students need practice working with a team to collaborate in a way that forces them to make substantive decisions together (not just divvying up the work). This takes practice and training. Students will also be expected to collaborate and communicate in an increasingly diverse society. Few schools allow students to interact with each other through social media outlets, so the only experience students have is through personal interactions outside of their “professional” work day. Can you imagine if the previous generation’s only experience with virtual communication was from phone conversations they had with their friends? We need to prepare our students to interact in both the physical and virtual world.

Microsoft’s Office 365 provides options that allow for students to interact with each other and with their teachers. Students and teachers can have free access to email through Outlook, web conferencing with Lync, collaboration through SharePoint, and messaging through Yammer – all within the control of the district. Office 365 is a way for students to practice their communication skills in a professional manner in a safe environment. School districts can archive everything to provide the additional security needed as students learn to use these new skills appropriately.

So how as educators can we prepare our students for their future professions?

According the IDC report, most high-growth, high-wage jobs require a combination of these 21st Century skills in addition to occupation-specific skills. I could write several pages of examples on how this can be done, but the most effective strategy is to incorporate problem-based learning into the curriculum. This allows students the opportunity to grapple with a relevant issue, analyze multiple resources, and evaluate what course of action should be taken. Add on the collaborative component, and students can create solutions not found in the back of the textbook. Allowing students to seek their own solutions to problems also ignites their entrepreneurial spirit.

For example, in my Civics class, I challenged ninth graders to create a mobile app that fulfilled a societal need that was not currently available. As a team, they researched current apps out there, chose a topic that was of interest to them, created a marketing video in Movie Maker (based on their research of marketing videos from the Kick Starter site), and created a wireframe (digital sketch) in PowerPoint of how their app would look. Students who wanted to take the project to the next level were encouraged to try their hand at programming and build it using Microsoft’s TouchDevelop Mobile App Maker. Several students wanted to continue working on the project even though the school year (and grade) was done.

Another example is a lesson on forest management found on the Partners in Learning Network using tools from Microsoft Office. Being proficient in Microsoft Office is the second most important skill to have in the workplace (see graphic). In this lesson, students used OneNote to collaboratively research and refine their plan on how best to use forested land. They were then asked to write up a proposal in Word, and present their plan using PowerPoint. Since groups took on the role of competing interests for the land, issues of sustainability, environmental stewardship, and economic growth were the focus of this project. Although the emphasis of the learning was not on the technology, the need to know how to use Microsoft Office was a key component to the overall project.

Allow your students to own their learning. Understand that these“soft” skills are not an add-on to what you already do, they are necessary skills to prepare your students for their future. Don’t be afraid to let go of what you have always done. This is new territory not just for teachers, but for students as well. Incorporating a student-centered, problem-based classroom takes time for everyone to adjust. Stick with it, and the payoff will be worth it.

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