Tag Archives: workplace skills

How far is the future?

Everywhere you look, there’s an article about preparing students for the future.

Read those articles carefully: They almost never specify what time in the future they’re talking about.

The timing is important.

Laura Arnold, the associate commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Education who is cited in a recent article in Education Week, hinted at why it’s important to know how far into the future someone is thinking:

In helping turn Kentucky into a national leader in career-and-technical education, Arnold has used data about local labor-market trends to guide decisions about what workforce-development programs schools should offer.

But it’s hard work: Employers tend to be focused on their immediate needs. Schools have a hard time developing courses around medium-term opportunities, like robot maintenance. And the long term is just so uncertain.

“We don’t have reliable data on jobs 20 years out,” Arnold said. “The best we can do is create strong career pathways and hope they evolve.”

Resources for seeing into the future

Here are a few articles that educators and community leaders may find useful in preparing for themselves and their students for the workplace of 2017 and beyond:

Could a robot do your job? This 2014 story in USA Today looked at the likelihood of jobs being replaced by robots. Their conclusion of was that half of all jobs—and 70% of low-skill jobs—may be replaced by robots or other technology by the decade between 2024 and 2034.

That means half the jobs available for the students who entered kindergarten in 2012 will be gone by time they graduate.

Can a robot do your job? This 2015 article by John C. Goodman in Forbes dips into three books that discuss the future from technological, economic and sociological perspectives. The quotes Goodman selects should scare you.

From janitors to surgeons, virtually no jobs will be immune to the impact of robots in the future.  Whether someone retains a job will depend on whether their skills “are a complement to the computer or a substitute for it. ”

Will a robot take my job? (2017) Plug in your job title and learn the likelihood your job will be done by a robot. The predictions are take a long-term vision of the future, looking ahead to thirty, forty or fifty years from now.

©2017 Linda Aragoni


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Filed under Education policy, Workforce readiness

Rural triangle: School, community, economy

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In November, 2015 I began posting a list of resources for folks who want to improve the relationship between rural schools and their communities for their mutual benefit.

It’s time to revisit the topic.

It’s still true that, as I wrote in 2015:

In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

And the 2015 description of rural brain drain still is largely accurate.

But rural America’s problems are getting more attention these days, most notably from rural Americans themselves who are stepping up try to reverse the decline of the rural American economy and prevent the loss of their communities and community schools.

I’ve shortened descriptions of resources I posted in 2015 and added dates for the resources so readers can quickly get a feel for the changes.

What’s happening in rural America?

(2009) The brightest students are leaving rural communities; job options for those who remain are diminishing.

(2012) The rural student population is getting larger, more diverse, and poorer.

(2013) Net migration isn’t offsetting the effects of brain drain.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

(2009) Schools and their communities each contribute to rural brain drain, setting the course for both to die. “Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.”

(2017) Rural schools are failing their communities. A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. Rural schools must work with their communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

(2011) Schools could address community problems around medical care, food access, etc. by acting as self-sustaining revenue facilities.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

(2011) A class of high school students in the poorest county in North Carolina designed and built a much-needed farmer’s market pavilion for the area.

(2012) Add skill applications to high school courses.

(2012) Greenville, NY, High School created what was, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

(2012) Encourage entrepreneurship by showing students online training resources they can access, and (2014) teach students to look for problems that require solutions.

(2013) Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

(2013) Students in Cody NE, population 154, built a a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to use as grocery store and run it themselves. Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.”

(2014)  Capture the imagination of students who don’t see college as a path for themselves by school programs that target local economic problems.

(2015) Pell Grant experiment needs needs rural  scrutiny to make sure its rules won’t keep some rural students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

(2017) Offer students a combination of coursework, internships, and job shadowing experiences to enable them to make informed choices about higher education, work, and place of residence. Preparing students for a continuously changing mainstream economy can give them the opportunity to return home as entrepreneurs or participants in the online space.

(2017) Schools can support project-based learning on authentic local problems that challenge students. For example, in Ness City, KS, an industrial arts class elected to design and build a tiny house. Other classes helped with interior design and marketing, and a special education class is documenting the project in a book. The classes plan to market the home across the country.

(2017) A SCORE chapter in Massachusetts collaborated with PTOs to deliver a six week, after-school program to train students in grades 4 through 8 to run their own businesses. The 72 participants in the initial program launched 52 new businesses, some of which were partnerships complete with partnership agreements.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

(2017) Public charters may offer rural communities a way to retain local schools.

(2011) Help teens get ready for the world of work with good attitudes and good skills.

(2012) Let teens work alongside adults to contribute to their communities and to develop and apply real skills.

(2012) Require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills.

(2012) Schools can grow their future teachers who will also be their communities’ future leaders.

(2014) Offer teens after-school programs that do more than distract.

(2014) Integrate non-academic services to students, their families, and even the wider community into the academic program.

(2016) Communities and schools need to work collaboratively to generate educational opportunities and economic prosperity in places where the number of voters without a child in school is a majority. Downloadable PDF from Battelle for Kids.

(2016)  School personnel and community members need to change the mindset that every kid needs to go to college. Today’s career and technical education, or CTE, can lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

(2017) Rural schools and their communities need to work together to turn around neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

(2013) Give Career and Technical Education (CTE) students the same degree of academic support given their college-bound counterparts so they can take advantage of educational opportunities they need for their careers.

(2012) Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

(2015) The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

(2016) For years, there’s been almost no assistance for CTE students seeking post-secondary training. Three recent developments suggest the tide may be turning: An experimental program to give  in financial aid to those in nontraditional programs (such as coding boot camps), a MOOC with a graded-paper option, and the introduction of a federal law to expand concurrent enrollment opportunities for CTE students.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

SaveYour.Town Two small-town Iowans offer webinars, toolkits, and online communities to help people learn, grow and take action to revitalize their communities.

The Rural School and Community Trust (ruraledu.org) has many resources, including Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs (cfra.org) developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

Have I missed items that should be here? Give me a shout in the comments or @LindaAragoni on Twitter

Updated June 23, 2017; March 27, 2017.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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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.


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Filed under Public schools, Workforce readiness

What is the world coming to?

I’ve been doing some catch-up reading in my RSS feeds this morning.

Among other things, I read a piece about how a new generation of web designers has emerged, people who were moved from a non-website job in their companies into web work because of a “natural flair” for web projects and their companies’ desire to have web work done faster and cheaper.

The newbies aren’t  detail people honed their skills by years of work.

Those folks who sweat over making sure sites were “compliant across every browser from an x-box to an iPhone” are looking for work—and not finding it.

Web designers who can make shoddy look good are trending.

What is the world coming to?

I also read an article in eCampus News about how America’s Generation Z—today’s school-age population—has no interest in having an IT career.

Generation Z wants their devices to work flawlessly, the help desk to help when they need it, but they don’t want to do any of that work themselves.

That attitude is a problem because without IT people, schools, healthcare, garage doors, and fuel pumps won’t work.

And without IT people, the next generation of devices won’t get off the drawing boards.

What is the world coming to?

More important, are we educators part of the solution or are we contributing to the problem?

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Should we train or educate?

One of the central debates in education circles these days is about what teachers ought to teach.

The pragmatists  favor training students to get along in the world as we know it, the business world dominated by the likes of Amazon and Google. (The pragmatists may go so far as to appear to limit the world as we know it to the world that’s described on standardized tests, which is too far, in my opinion.)

Another group I’ll call futurists argues that we can’t know what students will need to know by the time they graduate from  high school or college so we need to focus on “meta” skills, those that can be applied to changing situations throughout their lives.

The debate has changed little over centuries. What has changed is the pace of change: The future arrives much sooner than it used to.

The best path lies between the two extremes.

runner prepares to race on track

Train students for the known.

To ensure they can prepare students adequately, teachers need to familiarize themselves with the skills their students will need to be successful workers at area businesses and non-profit organizations. Not only will that knowledge make it possible to show students how training is relevant, but it is wonderful for school public relations.

Upper middle school and high school students must be able to read, write, and figure well enough to be successful volunteers at the local library or animal shelter

High school students and college undergraduates need to learn thoroughly whatever basic skills they need now to work in Pete’s Pizza Shop or Gayle’s Gadget Garage.

College students must learn skills that will let them put their degrees to use after graduation at business in the region around the college.

Educate students for the unknown.

Teachers and administrators can’t predict what students will need to know five years from now, but they can expect students will need to train to use new equipment and apply new skills.

Educators need to teach students not only how to learn information stuff, but how to work with different kinds of people in different environments and cultures.

Lacking information about what students will need to know in the future, teachers have to prepare students to be comfortable with—or at least not be overwhelmed by—change. The arts and humanities can offer opportunities for students to develop an awareness of cultures and environments unlike their own.


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How Should We Define “Real World”?

Jordan Tinney, superintendent/CEO in Surrey School District in British Columbia, Canada, posted a piece earlier this year about preparing students for “the real world.” He raises the question of what people mean by the phrase, which, considering how often the term is used, certainly merits investigation.

Tinney argues that the only way secondary students’ “real life” experience differs significantly from adults’ “real life” experience is that secondary students are not typically financially independent.

Tinney writes:

Separate from financial independence which is a huge deal – is life in secondary school as you remember it much different from life at work? Were the social situations similar, did you experience power structures, expectations, were there consequences for not doing things you should? Did you have opportunity, and were there both times of celebration and times of disappointment?

Although I agree with Tinney’s point that students’ life at school is as real as adults’ life at work aside from the issue of financial independence, those rhetorical questions bothered me. After chewing on them for a few weeks, I’ve concluded that although life at work and life in secondary school may have broad similarities, secondary school and post-secondary-school work as I experienced them were different in three significant ways.

One of the big visible differences between school and full-time work was the technology used. At school, we had the latest electronic gadgets; at work, I was expected to use equipment that I’d only seen stacked in the back of the janitor’s closet. Not only was I expected to use what I thought of as antiques, but I was expected to know how to maintain those devices.

Employers still expect employees to be able to hand write a short note legibly. Windows XP is still the dominant operating system in entry-level employees encounter in today’s businesses. And employees are still expected to be able to operate and maintain fax machines and mail meters without instruction, even though they may never have seen either before.

A second major difference was in the way deadlines were treated. In school, students were allowed to take as much time as they wanted as long as they met the deadline for the assignment. At work, I was not only expected to meet the deadline for the project but to do it without working any overtime and while completing all my other work on time.

The third major difference between my secondary school experience and my post-secondary work experiences was that my employers didn’t try to make work fun. In school, teachers assigned projects that were supposed to be fun and to allow students to be creative. They rarely succeeded, but it wasn’t from lack of trying.  On the job, I was told what to do, forbidden to deviate from the directions, and expected to keep busy, but not so busy that I worked hours for which I wasn’t scheduled.

In my post-secondary work life before I got professional credentials, I cleaned rat cages, shelved books, opened mail eight to 12 hours a day, and sterilized eight-ounce brown bottles. I did not find any “times of celebration” in my work,  although I did get a pair of gerbils to keep.

I don’t know whether my personal experiences are representative of anyone other than myself. I do think, however, that since so many people use the phrase “real life” as a antonym for school, it’s important to know what they mean by it.

Maybe Tinney is right in thinking that school life adequately prepares students for work life aside from the actual transition to financial independence. I suspect, though, that there are elements of entry-level jobs available to secondary school graduates that are qualitatively different from their secondary school classwork equivalents.

How do you see the issues?

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The collaboration model for entry-level jobs

Lunch counter

Collaboration is one of today’s must-have skills.  Yet the collaborative model that students typically are taught in schools is, unfortunately, far different from way students will collaborate on their first, entry-level jobs.

Typically the model of collaboration teachers use is based on a boardroom meeting model: All participants getting together decide what’s to be done and divvy up the project’s components. That’s the model corporate CEOs talk about and the model educators experience in their school jobs.

Secondary students and secondary school graduates get rarely are hired for entry-level jobs that involve face-to-face meetings around a conference table. Those boardroom collaborations are rare even for first post-college jobs.

Collaboration in entry-level jobs is much more likely to be about the guy who worked the night shift leaving a message for the guy who works the morning shift: This happened; we took this action; this remains to be done; we notified the boss.

Collaboration in entry-level jobs has three key components:

  • Each worker knows how the work system is organized.
  • Each worker does their own work competently.
  • Each worker notifies her supervisor (and/or the next shift staff) of problems that arose on her shift that may affect their work.

That formula is less like project-based learning than it is like 19th century schooling: Here’s the assignment; do the assignment well; tell your teacher if you can’t complete the assignment on time.

That basic entry-level collaboration model isn’t limited to burger joints and corporate mail rooms.

In a New York Times story, Jon Mooallen writes that Brigham Young University is the place film makers seek entry-level film crew members because BYU students are “committed to a specialty and to collaboration.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking face-to-face collaboration or project-based learning. However, the simple fact of business life is that people rarely get into the boardroom unless they’ve proved they can work well in the mail room.

Photo Lunch by Carin

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What happens in schools?

Class, race and school enjoyment Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work  provides a snapshot of what American teenagers want to be when they grow up and looks in detail at how their workplace skills and attitudes are developed.

Published in 2000, the book is based on a national longitudinal study of American adolescents from 1991 through 1997. Our 2011 economic and technological landscape is quite different from that 20 years ago; however, some of the data the researchers discovered may be worth looking at now in spite of or because of those changes.

In this post, I’ll focus on some of the findings about students’ experiences in and attitudes toward school. I’ll save findings about career aspirations for another day.

The authors

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is best known for his studies on flow, the mental state in which people are totally engrossed in an activity that is highly challenging but not beyond their capabilities.

Barbara Schneider is currently at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on how the social contexts of schools and families influence the academic and social well-being of adolescents as they move into adulthood.

The study design

Led by a multidisciplinary team, the study looked at adolescents in grades, 6, 8, 10 and 12. They followed more than 1,000 students in 13 school districts representing a cross section of American communities and schools.

Researchers used a variety of methods to get data, including:

  • A survey to collect data about what students know about the world of work and factors that may contribute to that knowledge,
  • Daily sampling to determine how students spent their time and how they felt about what they were experiencing
  • Interviews with teens, their parents, and school guidance counselors;
  • Analysis of publications of the schools the teens attended, such as mission statements, budgets, and curriculum descriptions.


1. How students’ school day is spent

Researchers found that only two-thirds of the students’ school day—four hours of a six-hour day—was spent in classes.

  • Students were in core academic classes (math, science, English, foreign language, history, social studies) just over half (55%) of the school day.
  • Students spent about 12% of their school day in classes outside the core subjects, such as art, physical education, and vocational training.
  • Students spent a third of their school day in unstructured time on school grounds outside of class—the halls, lunchroom, gym, library—or outside the building.

The authors point out that the amount of unstructured time is very high compared to many other countries. In Japan, for example, spent almost the entire school day in class, even eating at their desks.

2. How students’ class time is spent

Researchers also examined what students did during the four hours they spent in classes. Their findings are summarized on this pie chart, patterned after Figure 7.1 in Becoming Adult:

Here’s the actual breakdown of class activities by percentages:

23% of class time listening to the teacher lecture
23% of class time during individual work
14% of class time taking tests or quizzes
11% doing homework or studying
9% watching TV or video
6% listening or taking notes
5% in discussion
4% talking to friends or the teacher
3% in group work or lab
2% in other activity

3. How students feel about school activities

What is more interesting than the numbers is the way students felt about various activities. It should be no surprise that students said lectures are neither enjoyable or challenging. However, it may be surprising to learn they regarded classroom lectures and video content as unimportant to their career goals.

School activities that students said were engrossing, challenging, and important to their future goals were:

  • Taking tests and quizzes.
  • Doing individual  work.
  • Doing group work.

Group work came in well behind the other two activities, however.

The only parts of the school academic program that matched tests and quizzes in their ability to engage students were the non-core classes like art, music, and computer classes. Although kids said they really enjoyed those activities, they also said they were not important to their future goals.

Musings: If things haven’t changed much

If student attitudes haven’t changed since this study was done—and that’s a big if—we might need to rethink:

  • whether tests are really worthless,
  • whether homework is bad for kids,
  • whether the flipped classroom with video content at home is a cure for education’s ills,
  • whether group work increases learning that students perceive as valuable to their careers,
  • whether we can make students’ perception of the career value of non-core classes more positive.

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