Educators Sparking Positive Change for Workplace Readiness

Today’s students walk into the classroom with different interests and expectations than ever before. To draw them deeper into the learning process, some educators have explored experiential learning.  Learning from experience, especially when tied to working to solve real-world problems, allows a level of student reflection that is impossible to duplicate in lessons drawn from textbooks.  With business leaders dissatisfied with graduates who are ill-prepared for the workplace, experiential learning may hold a key to unlocking the door to more highly engaged and motivated learners.

How do we know graduates are not prepared?

In 2014 Northeastern University surveyed 502 national business leaders concerning their perceptions of college graduates entering the workforce. Of the executives surveyed, 73 percent believe there is a gap between the skills young people possess and job expectations.

The findings reinforced the results of a survey conducted in 2006 by a consortium of business partners who surveyed 431 human resource leaders on their perceptions of the readiness of high school graduates to enter the workplace. The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management conducted the study. In addition to lack of preparedness in reading comprehension, writing and math, the business leaders pointed out weaknesses in teamwork, critical thinking and communication.

What skills do employers expect to see?

Businesses are investing in educational innovations to help promote positive change. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills notes four categories of skills young people need to develop to be career ready.

  1. Learning and Innovation Skills
    • Critical Thinking
    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Creativity
  2. Reading, Math and Writing Skills
  3. Information, Media and Technology
  4. Life and Career Skills
    • Adaption to change
    • Flexibility
    • Manage goals and time
    • Work independently
    • Self-directed
    • Interact effectively with others
    • Work effectively in diverse teams
    • Manage projects
    • Produce results
    • Guide and lead others and be responsible to others

How can classrooms help students develop career-ready skills?

In recent years, educators are becoming more aware that the school is responsible not only to develop the academic skills of students but also to work to influence their character. Many of the life and career skills noted in surveys point to the need to nurture students to develop the qualities of flexibility, creativity, and critical thinking along with other life and career skills.

Designing lessons that focus on academic content as well as on life and career skills often present a challenge to teachers in traditional classrooms.  However, Susan Drake, in her 2012 text “Creating Standards-Based Integrated Curriculum,” reminds us, “Teaching these skills does not preclude teaching content; rather, the context is a vehicle for acquiring the skills and vice versa.” Drake points out, “One needs the skills to process the content.”

Experiential learning: tackling real-world problems

Blending together content areas and life and career skills to examine real-world problems engages learners as they delve deeply into understanding the details of the academic content to find solutions to problems.  Performance skills develop naturally as students wrestle with content. Without understanding the depth and breadth of the content, a viable solution cannot be found.

Learners hunger for understanding as they work together with experts in the field to better understand the issues. This opens the door to the world as students have access to more knowledge than a single teacher can provide. Experiential learning promotes active engagement and provides opportunities for innovation as well as encourages students to develop life and career skills.

Some schools or departments within schools are engaging students in these types of learning experiences, but a greater number of teachers need to consider making experiential learning a core part of learning.

One example comes from Scofield Magnet Middle School in Stamford, Connecticut.  Teachers and students studied their own water and then connected with learners in Jinan, China. Students were highly engaged in the process as teachers used experiential learning to help students explore real-world problems and connect with fellow learners across the globe.  Connections across the world help students to better understand commonalities in various locations and differences that must be taken into account.

Scofield Magnet Middle School is only one example of a school using real-world issues to go beyond textbooks to actively involve students in authentic learning tasks.  If we are going to provide the necessary skills for students for the 21st century, teaching must change. Educators can explore ways for students to be center stage and engaged in active learning experiences.  For experiential learning to work, teachers invest extra time and energy into the process of exploration, but the rewards are worth the extra effort. This type of activity is not beyond the reach of any school.

New ways of learning for 21st century

Students must gain the content knowledge of subject matter, but in doing this they also need to develop communication, critical thinking, and effective collaboration skills.  When students are actively engaged through experiential learning with opportunities for innovation and cross-discipline study, they make connections across the content areas and begin to develop life and career skills. This is just the beginning of transforming education to meet the needs of the 21st century.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards. 

Learn More: Click to view related resources.