Greater Boston Area : Employers want to hire people with 21st-century skills and they can’t find enough qualified candidates. The problem, says Charles Fadel, Founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, is that our education system “is biased for college entrance requirements via tests such as the SAT which are partially obsolete, and never reflected particularly well the needs of employability.”
So given the dramatic transformations we are seeing in the workplace, what are the most effective ways to close the increasingly widening education-to-employment gap?
Q: Charles, how do you respond to employers’ concerns that students don’t have the skills needed to be productive in their companies?
A: For the past two decades, employers have stated that they are looking for employees able to display the “4 C’s”: to think Critically as well as working Creatively, and able to Communicate and Collaborate on a systematic basis. This is the framework we developed at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21).
We have seen surveys done by, among others, the Conference Board and P21, and BIAC at OECD, highlighting that the 4 C’s described above matter more than ever for employability the world over. This is not a new need, but it has been growing in importance as competition and time-to-market pressures intensify.
It is fair to say that employers expect from schools and higher education systems that students be ready for the world of work as well as the world of life. They go hand-in-hand and there’s nothing wrong in educating for both employability and life.
This is a false dichotomy as we need to educate for all levels of the Maslow pyramid: we need to take care of physiological needs, but also safety, love/belonging, and self-actualization.
Q: What would you say to a recent graduate who worked hard at a very expensive institution and who has not been able to find full-time work with good benefits?
A: First, I’d say, “you have all my sympathy, I am sorry the system did not offer you better guidance, particularly given the price you paid. Brands matter, of course, but so do real skills, and the present system is focused on passing college, not really on employability.”
Then I’d say, “if you are still in college, make sure that you do many internships and projects with industry. And regardless of whether before or after graduation, realistically and honestly document how you have developed those real skills via each course, so you can discuss that during your interviews.”
Q: Let’s talk about skills. What are the essential skills being left out of curriculum or that are not getting enough emphasis in curriculum?
A: First, let’s be clear in indicating that this is about skills, not character qualities. The skills we are talking about are: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They are essential for both the world of work and success in life.
Now of course, present-day education achieves a certain amount of that, with varying degrees of success. Firstly, there is the assumption that teaching a discipline will necessarily foster higher-order thinking skills. It is mostly unfounded, as fast and broad coverage of materials typically supercedes the deeper learning that needs to occur.
Secondly, pedagogy needs to change — for instance, it is hard to imagine how a passive listener would learn how to communicate and collaborate.
Q: How do you see the importance of these skills in addressing the key trends and issues, such as climate change and migration?
A: The global challenges we are facing require not just modern areas of knowledge, but how to use that knowledge effectively, which is what the 4C’s are about: how will we design water desalination systems? How will we foster entrepreneurship? Just about any contemporary question requires innovative and critical thinking.
And it is also clear that communicating across cultures convincingly, and collaborating ethically and dynamically, are must-haves in an otherwise siloed world.
Q: What are the primary drawbacks in the way current curriculum is organized in terms of developing the needed skills? Are these fundamental issues or constraints that are not overly challenging to modify?
A: Present-day curriculum in schools and higher education assumes that these skills will be naturally developed as the students acquired knowledge.
But nothing can be further from the truth: knowledge can remain completely inert. Skills are how knowledge is used, but one can learn in a rote way and never deepen skills.
A long-standing debate in education hinges on the false assumption that teaching skills will detract from teaching knowledge; this is a false dichotomy as studies have shown that when knowledge is learned passively without skills, it is often learned at the superficial level and therefore does not readily transfer to new environments. Deep understanding and actionability for the real world will occur only by embedding skills within the knowledge domain such that each enhances the other.
Q: What steps need to be taken to better integrate the development of the essential skills into curriculum?
A: There are three steps that need to be taken to better integrate skills into the curriculum:
First of all, re-examining the curriculum for obsolete areas so as to free up time and space for deeper learning to occur, hence skill development. For instance, if we are serious about using Mathematics to help develop creativity, this must allow for exploration and inquiry about various possibilities. Thus the need for time, which implies carefully curating topics of less importance.
Second, the identification of which part of the curriculum is more suited for teaching which skill: every single discipline can cover every single skill deeply, but some are well-suited for specific skills, by their very nature: caricaturally perhaps, maths for critical thinking, language for communication, arts for creativity, etc. And third, the training of teachers to know how to activate those mechanisms, in concert with other specialists helping out on a topic-by-topic basis, from inside as well as outside the school (including professionals from industry). There is no reason for the educators to be so isolated.
Q: Are there any subject areas that should receive greater emphasis to support the essential skill development process, e.g. the arts, computer programming, etc?
A: Each subject area or discipline has the latitude to teach these four skills; it is a question of pedagogy and how time is used in the classroom, to pay attention to not merely learning of knowledge but also how to apply that knowledge.
For instance, one can use maths, if done right, to teach not only critical thinking, but also creativity, communication, and collaboration.
Note : Content found useful on a leading international daily and shared in public interest, originally published by C. M. Rubin, who is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair Award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.