Five Ways Education Can Keep Pace With the Jobs of the Future

Career success is no longer about what you know; it's about what you can learn.

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Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I like to reflect on these words at the start of a new school year for two reasons. First, they remind us that teaching and learning are indispensable to progress. And second, they drive us to look for ways to do better.

Right now, our world is changing in ways that demand we think differently about how we prepare students to lead productive and rewarding lives. These changes are born out of what economists call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a period marked not just by big leaps in technology and innovation, but by the increasing speed with which those leaps are made. In many ways, the pandemic is accelerating that pace of change even further — and the implications for the future of work cannot be overstated.

Some studies suggest that American workers will hold twelve different jobs in their lifetimes and stay at those respective jobs for an average of only four years. At the same time, some experts believe that up to 85% of the jobs college students will hold in 2030 haven't even been invented yet.

Heather McGowan, a noted author and future-of-work strategist who recently appeared on my podcast, agrees with this sentiment. Her research indicates that most people will work in as many as five different industries over their careers, and as a result, she believes that students need to focus on building a resilient and adaptive identity over an occupational identity.

Ms. McGowan is spot on — and educators and school leaders need to switch gears to better prepare their students for the mobility they will experience over their lifelong learning journeys. Career success is no longer about what you know; it's about what you can learn. That means we need to teach our students more than just facts and figures. They need to know how to grow and evolve alongside the challenges they will be asked to confront and learn how to master the tools they will use to confront them.

As technology continually makes those tools better and better, there is even more reason for our schools to double down on what have traditionally been defined as "soft skills." After all, what good is rote memorization when we can just "Google it." Jamie Casap, the former chief education evangelist at Google, recently appeared on my podcast and told me that students need to spend their time more productively now that all the information we need is just a touchscreen or mouse click away.

So, how do we get there? How do we begin to remake the system in ways that reflect our changing world? How do we get to a place where the question isn't "what do you want to be when you grow up?" but rather "what problem do you want to solve?" In my discussions with education leaders at all levels of practice and policy, I've seen five areas that are ripe for reform — and where incremental changes can result in improved outcomes:

Curriculum

Engage students by empowering them to pursue their passions and interests. Provide them with more independence in what and how they learn. Don't give them the answers; give them the problems and let them develop their critical-thinking and collaboration skills to find solutions. Teach them how to learn and prepare them for a lifetime of skill-building and intellectual development.

Technology

View technology not merely as a mechanism for the delivery of education, but as an essential tool for discovery and problem-solving. Leverage it to both foster independence and encourage collaboration. Provide students with fluency in the languages of data and innovation to create a comfort level with tools that will look a lot more like coworkers in the jobs of tomorrow.

Teaching

Understand that if we want students to learn differently, teachers must teach differently. Eliminate unnecessary administrative tasks. Teachers need the space and time to build relationships with students who need their support more than ever before. Encourage professional development and create opportunities for closer collaboration to ensure best practices are shared far and wide.

Testing

Make standardized tests more targeted and more frequent so that curricula can be personalized and adjusted in real time. Close equity gaps and more accurately assess the learning journey by testing how far students have come, rather than where they are at a given moment. Leverage tools beyond testing (such as progress after graduation) to get a more accurate picture of performance.

Policy

Break stalemates by realizing that no party has a monopoly on good ideas and that strong policy doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. Align the efforts of local, state and federal leaders working toward the same common goals. Make federal policy less punitive and more supportive of the new ideas that drive positive results.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has presented our education system with a compelling case for reform and a clearer understanding of what we need to do moving forward. We understand that success is no longer about what our students have learned upon graduation; it's about how we've set them up to learn over the course of careers that will continually test their ability to grow, adapt and evolve.

As fate would have it, those of us responsible for education policy and practice must now demonstrate that we have those same abilities — because the world has indeed changed, and education must change with it to give our students the best chance to succeed in the jobs of the future.

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