Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Practical Skills: What Should We Be Teaching Our Students Today?

Over the years, I have had many spirited discussions with a wide variety of professionals working in and around the field of education debating the purpose of the public education system. What are our ultimate goals of achievement for our students?

I believe the main objective of education is to help prepare students to survive and thrive in the world beyond academia. I support the integration of practical skills in secondary education over the continuation of solely academic pursuits.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we push, prod, and cajole, no matter how much we extol the virtues of seeking an education beyond high school,  approximately 7,000 students drop out of high school every day. Nationally, 75.5% do manage to graduate, but only about 68.3% of these students go on to enroll in college.

For those who see secondary education as a preparation period for students' continuing education, what exactly are we doing for the approximately 31.7% of our students who either do not graduate or do not go on to attend college, but enter the workforce instead?

In 2011, there were 15.9 million people, ages 16 to 24, who were not enrolled in school. They were out in the world working or looking for work.  Even those who attend college are going to have to seek employment. either during college (38.8% of full-time college students also work) or after.

The fact is that in our society today no one knows what the future is going to look like. As educators, we are currently trying to prepare our students for a world (and a job market) that does not yet exist. According to Meghan Casserly's article at Forbes, here are 10 jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago:

  • App Developer
  • Market Research Data Miner
  • Educational/Admissions Consultant
  • Millennial Generational Expert
  • Social Media Manager
  • Chief Listening Officer
  • Elder Care
  • Sustainability Expert
  • User Experience Design
  • Cloud Computing Services

According to the 2012 Job Outlook Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers today are looking for:

  1. Ability to work in a team - 79.8%
  2. Leadership - 77.2%
  3. Communication skills (written) - 75.6%
  4. Problem-solving skill- 74.1%
  5. Strong work ethic - 73.1%
  6. Analytical/quantitative skills - 72.0%
  7. Communication skills (verbal) - 67.4%
  8. Initiative - 65.3%
  9. Technical skills - 61.1%
  10. Detail-oriented - 57.5%
  11. Flexibility/adaptability- 56.0%
  12. Computer skills - 55.4%
  13. Interpersonal skills (relates well to others) - 54.9%
  14. Organizational ability- 50.8%
  15. Strategic planning skill- 29.0%
  16. Friendly/outgoing personality - 29.0%
  17. Creativity - 22.3%
  18. Entrepreneurial skills/risk-taker - 21.8%
  19. Tactfulness - 21.2%
This is a lot of information to consider, but it seems to me that a systematic and concentrated integration of practical skills education would be the place to begin educational reform.



First, when looking at both the list of new jobs and the skills employers are looking for, technology obviously plays a huge role. From what I've seen in the majority of high school technology programs, they need to be improved. Kids today know all about playing with technology, often better than the teacher - my students have taught me many tricks. However, if all we are allowing them to do is play with it in school, then they really aren't learning much. Students need to be given practical assignments to show off their skills, learn new ones, and realize that technology can be far more than play.
Not to say that there are not exceptional teachers in the field of technology or those that integrate technology in practical ways, but as a whole, technology applications need to be made more practical. Additionally, I strongly believe that all schools should require compulsory technology training as part of their Professional Development Plans every year for all teachers.
How can we possibly teach kids about technology, if we do not have the skills ourselves? Also, an added benefit would be teachers who actually use the technology available to them in their classrooms. I cannot count the number of classrooms I have been in that are equipped with SMART boards that are NEVER used - what a waste of money and resources!

Practical Work Opportunities

The majority of students who drop out do so because either they see no life value in what the are receiving from their educations or they believe they would be better off working or they have to work to help support themselves and/or their families. Why not take advantage of the government monies available for training (it is out there) and involve the larger community by partnering up and offering students the opportunity to apply for paid internships with local businesses?   
Additionally, students in high school should all be required to take a personal finance/life skills class, and it should be as realistic as possible. Students should be taught to manage a budget and balance a checkbook using information from the real world such as average pay, rental prices, gas prices, etc. from they area in which they actually live. They should be taught how to write resumes and fill out job applications. They should be exposed to tax forms and learn how to read them. They should be exposed to paycheck stubs and learn how to interpret them. These are all practical skills that everyone is going to use eventually. When they are tailored to a specific area and to a particular student, they can be invaluable and, best of all, applicable to his/her life.

Team Building and Teamwork

Notice the top two attributes employers today are searching for: ability to work in a team and leadership. Team building and group work should be used on a regular basis across the curriculum. In real life situations, your students are not going to be working all by themselves exclusively. Dealing with group dynamics (both the good and the bad aspects) is a skill that must be learned. How to work effectively in groups is a skill that must be learned. Helping facilitate this learning is the responsibility of each and every educator.
Schools and teachers should also always be looking for opportunities to generate leadership roles and spread them out among the school population. Working in groups and teams can help provide these roles. I also support the use of community service projects and volunteerism to foster leadership skills, teamwork skills, and a number of other skills which I will discuss further at another time. Participation in sports, clubs, and organizations also offer the chance to work on leadership and teamwork. I believe teachers, sponsors, and coaches should use these opportunities to allow members to take on responsibility for and leadership of various tasks to help the greatest number of students.

Overall, I strongly believe the integration of practical skills education has the potential to both encourage and retain disenfranchised students, while also offering all our students (college-bound or not) authentic abilities applicable to their worlds beyond academia. So, if we are going to discuss educational reform, this seems like the most logical place to begin.


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