Taking our education system from the Industrial Revolution model that creates good employees to a Digital Age model that creates good entrepreneurs is a concept many can agree upon. Where we lack consensus is how to get there.
Does project-based learning inspire forever learners or needlessly frustrate those who thrive under the lecture-based method of direct instruction? Does direct instruction help or hinder students’ ability to think critically so they can master the jobs of the future? Do apprenticeships or partnerships with businesses prepare students for future innovation or train the next generation of workers on our tax dollars?
Our inability to answer these questions with a high measure of certainty, or to find consensus among the answers that have been put forward, makes it difficult to take action. Yet doing nothing is not a solution. There are a number of ways schools can change the education narrative ranging from small classroom changes to sweeping school reform, all of which can better prepare students for the future of work.
There are two primary reasons we have more questions than answers about the best way to prepare students for the future. The first and most widely recognized challenge is that we don’t exactly know what future jobs will look like, making it difficult to prepare for them. Second, students themselves learn differently today than they did ten, twenty or even fifty years ago.
University of California Professor Robert Reich, who has been observing students since 1981, noted that the 2018 brain is much different than the 1981 brain. Specifically, students in 1981 had a longer but more narrow attention span, while the 2018 brain has a shorter yet broader attention span. This means the 2018 brain is capable of multitasking in ways the 1981 brain was not.
Put into simple terms, today’s students are interactive learners, adept at learning from pictures and hands-on activities rather than words. Thus the first step toward preparing students for jobs of the future is to recognize that today’s students may not thrive in yesterday’s learning environment.
We are starting to see this recognition take hold as schools and classrooms incorporate new teaching strategies and adopt new technologies to facilitate classroom learning. For example, interactive lessons favored by project-based learning and self-directed instruction are being utilized to teach skills like creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, which can all lead to a love of learning.
Apprenticeships or partnerships with local businesses expose students to the real-world applications of the skills they learn in class, helping them to identify areas of interest that may evolve into a career while promoting skills like collaboration and time management.
Technology continues to make its way into the classroom as well, offering students the ability to acquire information in a variety of formats such as audio or video, while learning coding and analytical skills that may be required for future jobs.
These methods and tools exist because a growing number of educators realize the need to adapt to today’s students. However, use of these teaching methods and tools is not yet widespread, primarily because teachers are still being trained in the same way they were decades ago, and we can’t expect teachers to pass on what they haven’t yet learned.
Training and retraining have a direct effect on productivity and self-esteem (Thecla, 2016), which in turn has a positive impact on health, life outside of work and the educational outcomes of students. However, the average American teacher receives just 44 hours of professional development each year, compared to 100 hours in academically high-achieving countries (SocialJusticeSolutions.org, 2015).
Professional development allows teachers to refresh their existing knowledge, gain insight into new teaching methods and tools and even continue their own education. In an era where student’s brains are evolving, and technology can help us accommodate these new learning capabilities, keeping teachers up to date is critical for their job satisfaction and their students’ success.
A recent study of professional development programs found that when teachers gained an understanding of how students learn, not just what to teach, the students performed better (SocialJusticeSolutions.org, 2015). This was attributed to the fact that a deeper understanding of the student’s brain helped teachers follow the process students used to solve problems, and asked complex questions designed to help them find more effective ways of solving those problems. Training programs that did not touch on how the student mind works resulted in those teachers placing more importance on rote memorization.
Students perform better when their teachers have an understanding of how they learn. They also benefit from teachers who have worked through the same material being taught in class, because they have a better understanding of the subjects they teach.
Many districts offer professional development several times during a school year to meet specific initiatives, such as incorporating digital platforms into the curriculum or adjusting teaching strategies to address any weaknesses that are identified through test scores. However, these programs should be structured to address both the why and the how, thus arming teachers with the tools to truly reach their students.
It’s also important to note that teachers can benefit from interactive learning much like their students. Collaboration between teachers for things like lesson plans or incorporating new technologies in the classroom improves efficiencies and promotes feedback and self-evaluation (Kelly, 2015). Thus it makes sense to make ongoing professional development part of the regular schedule.
The Palm Beach County, Florida school district is doing just that. One school in the district has incorporated six distinct scheduling models to increase collaboration time for teachers. Another adjusted class sizes to give teachers more planning time. And all schools participate in the district’s professional development program of thirds, where the district, the school and the teachers each dictate one-third of the professional development they receive. This gives teachers a voice in their ongoing education while ensuring that all minimum professional development requirements are met.
Recognizing the state of the student brain and arming teachers with the tools and resources to reach that brain are key to updating our education system. Yet these steps don’t bring us any closer to a consensus on the best tools or methods to achieve results. Innovation may help us find the answers.
Innovation can be a change to an existing idea or an entirely new idea. More and more schools and classrooms are innovating in their quest to improve or introduce tools and strategies that meet the needs of today’s students.
STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado recently introduced synchronous learning, a two-way collaboration between schools that gives students problems they can solve together in real time. The program is currently being used to connect STEM classrooms with students from both rural and international schools.
Using an internet connection and a large screen, students interact in a Skype-like environment to collaborate on classwork with students at other schools. This method uses technology to teach critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and group participation.
According to Gregg Cannady, head of collaborations and concepts development at STEM, synchronous learning exposes students from different backgrounds to real-world problems that help them learn about careers and opportunities they may not see in their daily life.
The Roscoe Collegiate Independent School District in West Texas, in response to the perception that schools were producing graduates who knew how to color in the right bubble but didn’t know how to actually do anything, began innovating with apprenticeships.
They’ve partnered with a local chiropractor to see patients in the school, with student apprentices observing the process. An alliance with a local drone company gives students exposure to flights for agricultural data collection, real-estate cinematography and windmill-blade inspection, and even enables the district to market its drone curriculum through an office supply outlet.
Technology, apprenticeships and even traditional activities like field trips and guest speakers help students connect the dots between classroom lessons and real-world scenarios. This, in turn, sets students on a learning path that more closely resembles what they may encounter in future careers.
Sharing the Knowledge
Staying current with the latest technology, teaching strategies and innovation tools doesn’t have to be limited to teachers. Parents, caregivers and community members can benefit, and in the process build better relationships with the school.
Schools were once the hub of the community, yet as communities grow in size, families get busier and neighborhood schools become one of many options instead of the primary source of education, schools have lost their foothold as the center of the community. They can regain that position by opening their doors to all members of the community, not just the students.
Utilize teachers or savvy parents to share information on student curriculum including how to code or how to solve that math problem the same way students are being taught to solve it. Invite local businesses to teach classes ranging from financial management to healthy eating habits. Help parents learn English, or teach Football 101 to moms (or dads) that want to be supportive but don’t understand the sport.
There are an endless number of ways the school can educate parents, teachers and students alike. By establishing itself as a hub for learning schools can help entire communities develop a love of learning, a healthy lifestyle and enhanced self-esteem, and in the process build lasting relationships with one another.
Join the Conversation
Has your school adjusted its lessons to meet the needs of today’s students? What tools or resources do they use to bring real-world scenarios into the classroom?
Ed.Gov Staff (2018) – Ed.gov. #RethinkSchool: Flying Drones, Veterinary Care and a Chiropractic Clinic, All in a West Texas High School. (https://blog.ed.gov/2018/07/rethinkschool-flying-drones-veterinary-care-and-chiropractic-west-texas-high-school/#more-27017)
Ed.Gov Staff (2018) – Ed.gov. #RethinkSchool: Family Relationship Opened Door to “Synchronous Learning” Between Colorado Schools. (https://blog.ed.gov/2018/08/family-relationship-opened-door-synchronous-learning-colorado-schools/#more-27048)
EdWeek Staff (2017). Edweek. School Districts Update Professional Development.https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/04/26/school-districts-update-professional-development.html
Gonser, S. (2018) – NBC News. Students are Being Prepared for Jobs That no Longer Exist. Here’s How That Could Change. (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/students-are-being-prepared-jobs-no-longer-exist-here-s-n865096)
Guest Submission (2015) – SocialJusticeSolutions.org. How Professional Development for Teachers Benefits Students (http://www.socialjusticesolutions.org/2015/04/22/how-professional-development-for-teachers-benefits-students/)
Johnson, S. (2018) – EdWeek. Robert Reich on Student Brains, Civic Education and Restoring Pathways to the Middle Class. (https://www.edsurge.com/writers/sydney-johnson)
Kelly, M. (2018) – Thoughtco.com. Importance of Effective Teacher Training, Why Effective Teacher Training is Key to Teaching Success. (https://www.thoughtco.com/importance-of-effective-teacher-training-8306)
Powerschool.com Staff (2016) – Powerschool.com. Benefits of Professional Development. (https://www.powerschool.com/resources/blog/benefits-professional-development/)
Thecla A.Y. PhD (2016) – Department of Educational Management Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Enugu, Nigeria. Teachers’ Perception of the Impact of Training and Retraining on Teachers’ Productivity in Enugu State, Nigeria Eze, (http://www.questjournals.org/jrbm/papers/vol4-issue3/E433337.pdf)