Educating for future careers

Why we need a more responsive and pragmatic way of teaching and learning


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The vast majority of us in the United States were educated as children and young adults so that we could succeed both as citizens sustaining our democratic way of life and as productive workers able to sustain ourselves and our families economically.

For the most part the combination of public and private K–12 schools and higher education universities and colleges have served us quite well. We are by and large a well-educated and constructive populace.

But can we rely on the old-school methodologies to sustain us for a world of work that will be characterized as mercurial and erratic calling for agility, adaptability and rapid evolution? There is reason to think not.

An economy that is experiencing increased speed and transformation will not be well served by an educational structure and model designed to prepare students for a relatively static and predictable work world.

Let’s examine the existing paradigm that traditionally and currently defines most American high schools and colleges. There are two patterns at play based on the concepts of liberal education and career-focused education. By the time students reach high school, they select or have selected for them one of these persuasions or the other.

Liberal (or liberal arts) education refers to an approach that encourages a broad and diverse exposure to fundamental and diverse subject matter, with the goal being to educate a student for a complex world requiring a variety of perspectives, skills and areas of knowledge. When and if college is reached, the student fits into this mix a concentrated focus in one or more disciplines.

A career-focused or vocational path, on the other hand, concentrates much more on preparing the student for a relevant job that is in demand in the workforce. Breadth gives way to depth in that a craft or skill set demonstrably employable is chosen, studied and eventually mastered by the student.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is anything fundamentally wrong with these models. My concern is in the traditional modes of delivery of them.

We are still under the assumption that a high school diploma and/or college degree program that terminates upon graduation is enough to provide a student for a lifetime career. It used to be, but projections are that it won’t be enough going forward.

The workplace and its career needs are becoming increasingly digitized and globalized, resulting in an urgency for malleable, resilient and entrepreneurial workers to address the ever-vibrant economic demands across the planet. To maintain these attributes, workers will need to accept and embrace continuous lifelong learning, upskilling and training to keep up and stay ahead. Schooling will never end. In fact it will become an integral and ongoing part of any advantageous job worth having for most.

We will likely see a time when liberal and career-focused methods become more of an as-needed hybrid, with a greater proliferation of skill and knowledge-based certification and training programs not necessarily tied to slow-moving traditional education settings. Students, employees and educators will begin migrating more intentionally into online, virtual and, yes, brick-and-mortar learning facilities that offer the highest-quality, data-driven, short- and long-term instruction essential to the requirements of the emerging economy.

As an educator myself with 31 years in public schools and five years as a part-time college adjunct, I can say with some certainty that this industry will not, on its own, move in this direction without a lot of resistance.

There are many entrenched interests compelled to resist such changes. A more responsive and pragmatic instructional delivery will likely arise from a combination of innovative educators and demanding students and employees requiring relevant reactive instruction.

However, we can all begin by getting our heads around the concept of lifelong learning. I predict it will be far more energizing than draining. 

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.

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