Teaching future-ready students: What skills should we teach?

In a previous post, I sketched how skill at learning to use digital tools for re-purposing information outlasts both the tools and the information. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here.

Today I’d like to look at what we should be teaching so that our students exit high school with skills that will last them for more than a decade.

Background of stone wall with overlaid words "Teachers aren't expected to teach everything;they're expected to teach the most important things.

Future-readiness is a historical problem

I’m a baby-boomer. Born and raised in a rural New York community not far from the site of the Woodstock Festival, I was the first in my family to go to college. My college roommate was from a rural Ohio community, the first in her family to go to college. Both of us toggled together scholarships, loans, and jobs to pay our way through college.

In the 1960’s our college said it was preparing us for the year 2000.

My roommate became a chemist whose work took her all over the Americas not only doing lab work, but helping cogeneration facilities maintain environmentally friendly practices. I became a writer/editor/teacher in the gig economy before the term was invented.

Although neither of us always had work we loved, each of us was able to move from job to job within different economic sectors with relative ease.

Our college delivered on its promise to prepare us for the year 2000.

Knowledge obsolescence overblown

Granted the speed of technological change from 1966 to 2016 was pokey compared to the speed of change in the last 25 years, but does that mean we can’t make any reasonable predictions about what skills students are going to need in 10-15 years?

Is world really changing so rapidly that anything we teach students today will be obsolete before they get to the workplace?

That suggestion prompts a pit-of-the-stomach reaction from anyone who has ever gotten a notice from a vendor saying the DuzAll software program they purchased for $29 the week before is being discontinued and replaced with DuzAllBetter (for an additional $110).

However, such visceral reactions to change don’t prove that we can’t make any predictions about tomorrow’s workplace.  If anything, they suggest there’s an ongoing need for a tool that solves the problem the original DuzAll set out to solve.

In the business world, if a problem persists, companies will continue making products to solve the problem.

Persistent problems show needed skills

We can make some reasonable guesses about the skills students are going to need in 10, 20, or 30 years by

  • looking at the problems today’s workplace tools attempt to solve
  • examining what skills enable today’s workers to use those tools efficiently and effectively

If we do that, I believe we’ll be able to identify within the general education program a fairly small set of teachable skills that we can be fairly confident will enable students to function well in their workplaces, including:

  • data storage
  • data analysis
  • process/systems analysis
  • identifying a problem that needs a solution (which may entail finding the root problem among a cluster of derivative problems)
  • communicating a nonfiction message clearly and concisely

(For Career Technical Education students, an additional set of teachable skills would need to be identified, probably on a per-program basis.)

Once we have our list, we can look at our curricula and identify obvious and not-so-obvious places where instruction and practice in our work-readiness skills fit well.

Desirable acquired workplace traits

While we’re doing our analysis of the workplace tools and skills, we will probably notice that certain attitudes, abilities, and competencies are typically associated with top performing workers, such as

  • self-management
  • time management
  • grit and determination
  • cooperating and getting along with others
  • reliability

Such competencies aren’t learned well, if at all, from instruction.

Students can, however, acquire attitudes and abilities while engaged in activities designed to help them master some more readily teachable skills in their courses. Teachers just need to make sure they regularly assign work that helps students hone desirable “soft skills” while mastering more concrete material.

Who is responsible?

Whose job is it to figure out what the essentials skills to teach are?

If nobody else in your school is doing it, it’s yours.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

And even if you miss something or include something that turns out not to have been essential, your students are still going to be better off than if everybody hoped somebody else would take responsibility.


Worst-case scenarios help improve writing

Writing is a complex task that involves a great many more skills than just putting sentences on paper. Writers can know how to write, can even know how to write well, but still regularly fail to produce written work when its required because they are weak in skills that are not part of the writing process  per se.

A discussion of why Johnny can’t produce written work would fill a book, or more. (David M. Levine has written one book on the problem, The Myth of Laziness, and there are probably other books on the topic as well.)

One familiar reason why students I’ve had weren’t able to produce written work is they weren’t very good at estimating out how long writing would take.  We even have a common name for this phenomenon. We call it the
Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it.effect.

Researchers discovered that when people make plans, they tend to focus on the best-case scenario. They don’t build in time for things to go wrong.

When you, for example, plan how long it will take you to pick up something from the grocery for dinner, you are likely to estimate based on light traffic between work and the grocery, pulling into a parking place close to the store, finding what you want on the shelf, and having no one ahead of you in the checkout lane.

What you actually encounter is likely to be heavy traffic, empty shelves behind aisles blocked by boxes of unopened merchandise, a new employee being trained at the only checkout that’s open, and seven people in line ahead of you.

That’s the Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it. effect.

When your students write, they estimate how long they need to complete it, the same way you estimate how long it will take you to pick up something for dinner: by a cheerfully optimistic best-case scenario.

Because everything takes longer than they think it will, they may not have time to do a fraction of the prep work writing requires.

If writing teachers are going to enable students to write, they must enable them to make good estimates of how much time they will need for each of the stages of writing.

I find it useful to teach students to write in five stages, each of which ends with the production of some written product that becomes part of the finished paper.

By assigning students to complete the five stages on five consecutive days, I make it possible for them to count how long it took them to complete each step.

When we get to the final assessment, I ask students to identify the first stage in the writing process at which they could have done something differently that would have significantly improved their final product.

Over a period of months, students develop the ability to make reasonable predictions of the total time it will take to plan, draft, and edit their work based on their past experiences of worst case scenarios that actually happened.

In short, they learn that

Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it.


Graphic credit: The background for the statement “Everything takes longer than you think it will” is a sliver of a Trulia map that shows approximately how long it take to get anywhere in the map area from where you are.