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Ready for the Robots? Let's Prepare Every Student for the Future of Work

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This post is by Rebecca E. Wolfe, an Associate Vice President at Jobs for the Future and a co-editor of Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life, published in April by Harvard Education Press.

Could you be replaced by a robot? If not today, will automation claim your job--or your children's jobs--within several decades? As anxieties escalate about the "Future of Work," few things are certain but this: No one can predict exactly what the jobs of the future will be.

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But what about the skills of the future? Which abilities are most vital for young people to be able to navigate an ever-changing economy? Turns out that's something more and more people agree on, and it's not memorizing facts and reproducing content knowledge. Rather, as Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international PISA tests that compare student performance around the world, puts it: "extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations."

Exactly. This sentiment resonates profoundly with a growing number of American employers, educators, policymakers, and researchers. Everyone from Jeb Bush to Nicholas Pinchuk (and Randi Weingarten!), to Linda Darling-Hammond have been calling for education to focus much more on critical thinking, creative approaches to problem solving, effective communication, collaboration in diverse contexts, and directing one's own learning in order to truly prepare students to complete college and whatever careers await them.

This is the argument at the heart of a new book from Jobs for the Future (JFF), Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life. The collection of edited research papers, written by some of the nation's most well-respected education scholars, urges schools to replace the narrow learning goals of the past 15 years with renewed efforts to ensure that all students attain the full range of intellectual, personal, and social skills valued in today's economy--and the economies of the future--in this rapidly changing world.

The abilities employers say are most important--often called "employability skills"--mirror the deeper learning competencies explored in Rethinking Readiness. The ability to think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, learn how to learn, and develop a mindset for continuous learning and mastering content are the essence of deeper learning. When paired with rigorous content, these are the skills that can keep students agile in the uncertain future of work. Each chapter in Rethinking Readiness unpacks a different angle of with whom, how, and where these skills emerge.

How Can We Foster These Skills in All Students?

The book's authors point us to significant research that supports the goal of teaching these skills to all students, including often-marginalized students such as low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities. Rethinking Readiness focuses on how educators and policymakers can move forward to provide these educational experiences to vastly greater numbers of students through the lenses of curriculum, instruction, teacher evaluation, student assessment, and more.

For example, the book's authors point to effective strategies for students with disabilities who learn in mainstream classrooms and for English language learners--two populations who will make up a growing share of the workplaces of the future. In their chapter "Deeper Learning for Students with Disabilities," Sharon Vaughn of the University of Texas College of Education and her colleagues show that "among special education's recommended practices are several that would likely prove just as beneficial to the wider student population, such as modifications to pacing, direct and systematic instruction paired with explicit practice, strategies to support motivation and attention, and increased instructional time, among others."

And Patricia Gandara, a research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, in the chapter "Deeper Learning for English Language Learners," explains how English language learners, who are usually defined by the skills they lack, in fact have many assets that enhance their ability to attain deeper learning skills. She cites cultures that prize collaboration, multinational perspectives on history, culture, and politics, and valuable traits like resilience as just a few that will serve them well in future careers.

No surprise to regular readers of this blog, we learn that a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom is not the only, nor sometimes even the best place to teach skills for deeper learning. In her chapter, "The Power of Work-Based Learning," JFF senior advisor Nancy Hoffman argues that while deeper learning competencies may be essential to creating quality workers, quality work experiences are essential to developing deeper learning competencies and thus employability skills. Young people in these situations confront difficult, "real-world" problems and typically have a limited amount of time to solve them. Setting goals, managing time, adapting to unexpected challenges, and reflecting on one's progress are all built in to high quality work-based learning.

There is no question automation and robots already are and will take on more work in the future. But it is also undeniable that the most capable people to thrive in new and changing environments will be those who are complex problem solvers, able collaborators, creative thinkers, and skilled communicators. The more that machines learn to perform new tasks accurately and efficiently--and can replace a greater variety of human workers--the more critical that we construct education systems that ensure all students can access the work settings, experiences, and competencies that will fuel future employment and fully develop what makes us, well, human.

Illustration by A.J.B. Lane

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The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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