Career Education for the 21st Century

Career Education for the 21st Century

Earlier this week, I received an email from my kids’ school introducing parents to a program that helps middle schoolers start career planning. As you can imagine, it piqued my interest.  

I read through all the information and learned that the kids would be given a “career cluster finder” as well as a “learning style inventory.”  No harm in that, I supposed.

I asked my kids about it, and they seemed to think it was helpful.  Based upon their interests, they used an online program to explore careers.  Then, they figured out which classes in their school’s curriculum are on their career path.  

Considering the number of students at their school, it seemed like an efficient way to educate kids about classes that correlate with career interests. But, I started to wonder whether this model of career education is sufficient for the 21st Century.  

Sure, an online interface, which incorporates the school’s curriculum, is more modern than what I experienced in school.  But, when you think about the underlying model of career education, it is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago — identify your interests, find a career match, take appropriate classes. 

This method of career education was perfectly appropriate when careers were linear.  You know how it went: get a job, stay for 30 years, retire with a gold watch.  But, that employment trajectory has been eroding for years.  We’ve seen companies rise and fall, grow and shrink; forcing workers to make shifts at different stages in their careers.  Now, there’s even greater pressure as skill sets rapidly become outdated.

Perhaps, we’ve reached a point where it’s no longer enough to talk to kids about what they want to do.  Truthfully, these conversations establish a false narrative.  A narrative that holds schools responsible for delivering adequate training for whatever career is chosen.  That is nearly impossible.  Today’s high schools are in no position to guarantee that the hard skills they teach will be in demand after students graduate.  

It’s simply outdated to expect schools to produce students that are immediately ready for work. That stopped being possible years ago. Schools should be clear about what they are equipped to provide.  

Schools can teach kids foundational hard skills, focusing on the basics from which more sophisticated skills are formed.  Basic skills in computer science, web design, and digital electronics will prepare kids for more advanced learning, even if the advanced skills are subject to change. 

Schools can also teach a myriad of soft skills.  Schools have been incorporating 21st Century skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and creative problem solving across all disciplines — science, language, and math(s).  Schools can also help kids grow grit, emotional intelligence, and adaptability.  These skills can be modeled and taught in any classroom.  

Perhaps, most importantly, schools can teach kids how to learn. They’ve been doing it for decades.  If you only read the headlines, it’s easy to think that schools are solely teaching rote memorization and giving tests. But, think about this — we have computers in our pockets; our joints can be replaced; and soon cars will drive themselves. Schools didn’t teach kids how to  build smartphones, or program cars.  Schools taught kids how to think and to learn.  

But, even when schools succeed in teaching kids these things, kids’ learning will not be complete. Graduation from high school, while continuing to be a huge accomplishment, will no longer be a milestone. It will become just one of many educational accomplishments throughout a career.  Learning will become a lifetime endeavor.

Today’s kids need to understand that work is changing, and competing in the labor market of the future will be different then it was for their parents.  No longer will expertise be measured by how much you know.  Rather, it will be measured by how well you learn. Those that can learn the fastest will have the competitive advantage.  

So, having kids think in terms of careers may be leading them down a dead-end path.  Rather, we should align their learning with their interests, and instill a comfort with not knowing everything. Kids should have confidence in their ability to acquire whatever skills they want or need.  They shouldn’t leave high school thinking they’re stuck on one linear path.  They should leave high school knowing that if whatever path they’re on changes they’ll be okay.

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Preparing Students for the Future of Work

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