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Is Our K-12 Education System Successfully Preparing Students for the Workforce?

Updated: Jan 6

A few hundred years ago, education meant an apprenticeship under an expert, not years spent in a classroom. Although virtually everything about education has changed since then, one thing remains the same: Children go to school so they can learn how to be productive, effective adults. Even if someone never goes to college or works outside of the home, they should leave school with skills to help them with everything from navigating conflicts with friends to managing their bills.

But are today’s schools preparing students for the rich, diverse world they’ll experience in the adult workplace and beyond? The answer, increasingly, is no. The test-centric world of most classrooms may prepare students to take standardized college admissions tests, but it  does little to equip students with concrete life skills.

Do Students Learn Real-Life Skills at School?

Consider the average adult’s day. It might include managing conflicts with a spouse or coworker, mental math at the grocery store, time spent navigating the web, and applying a bevy of job-specific skills.

The average student’s life stands in stark contrast to that of the average worker. Most students spend a lot of time quietly listening to teachers talk, then taking tests about what they’ve learned. Although this is one way to measure knowledge, there’s little evidence that it prepares students for the life that lies ahead.

It’s no wonder so many business owners are sounding alarm bells. In one recent survey, 60 percent of employers said that recent college graduates lacked critical thinking skills. Forty percent said students lacked writing proficiency, while 39 percent complained about new workers’ public speaking abilities.

Jobs, family life, and even a trip to the grocery store demand a range of life skills that are difficult to test:

  1. Detecting fake information online

  2. Making small talk and engaging in meaningful conversation

  3. Managing conflicts and compromising with coworkers

  4. Public speaking

  5. Persuasive writing

  6. Critical thinking

  7. Creative problem-solving

  8. Quickly integrating information

  9. Knowing where to look for information

As the workforce increasingly shifts away from manufacturing and toward skills and services, working with others may be the attribute that determines whether a person succeeds. As far back as 2013 and once again this past spring, Google analyzed its hiring practices, which revealed that “soft skills” like emotional intelligence and empathy have a greater impact on success than Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) knowledge.

Can a Project-Based Approach Prepare Students for the Future?

A project-based approach to learning presents students with a learning environment that’s similar to what they’ll encounter in the real world. By solving complex problems, students exercise critical and creative thinking skills, learn which approaches to research are most effective, and master the art of working with others.

A single project can present students with dozens of challenges they might never encounter in a traditional classroom. Students must choose among competing approaches, delegate project goals, and define success. They may need to use a range of information sources, replace failed strategies with successful ones, and navigate myriad conflicts. With project based learning, students steadily master the skills that tests can’t measure and educators can’t easily teach.

Project Learning in College and Beyond

Many educators intuitively recognize that a project-based approach is superior to passive learning and endless testing. They worry, however, that this approach won’t prepare students for college.

However, a project-based approach may actually be the best way to prepare students for college. Many students flounder when they get to college and aren’t constantly told what to do, and this approach teaches initiative and self-direction.  Self-directed projects prepare students to transition to more independent learning, which is critical for college success.

Students who regularly invest in deep and meaningful projects master leadership skills, too. They’re better prepared to learn from a variety of sources, rather than being dependent on a test-based, instructor-centric model. Because this approach shows students how school is relevant to their daily lives, it may also help them to actually value their own education. This supports students in learning, remaining motivated, and caring about college.

It’s time to end the drudgery of boring classrooms. Students learn best when they care, not when they’re exhausted and overwhelmed by dull lessons. A novel approach can help struggling students gain mastery by helping them identify strengths they might otherwise have never realized. Gifted students can gain the chance to exercise the full range of their abilities, and teachers will no longer have to grapple with boredom and frustration in the classroom. It’s a win for everyone, and a chance to build a more educated society.

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