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Why Traditional Schooling Can't Prepare Students for the Modern Workplace Today's economy values creativity, collaboration and self-direction -- everything that lands kids in the principal's office.

By Anthony Kim

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Everywhere I look, I see forecasts calling for dramatic shifts in the workplace, jobs and the requirements for those jobs.

  • Based on Pew Research Center surveys, two-thirds of Americans believe that 50 years from now, robots and computers will do much of the work humans perform.
  • According to Devin Fidler, research director at the Institute for the Future, "There are some overarching shifts poised to change the nature of work itself over the next decade," including a demand for new skills.
  • "Sixty-five percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven't even been invented yet," Cathy Davidson writes in her new book, "Now You See It."

But are we educating our kids to succeed in these new jobs? The education system is undergoing a disruptive shift. Some school districts are transitioning to a personalized learning model, working to provide the education each student needs when she or he needs it. Unfamiliar with the concept? Personalized learning is defined as "tailoring learning for each student's strength, needs and interests -- including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn -- to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery at the highest standards possible."

Yet many schools in many districts look the same as schools did a century or more ago. Desks are lined in neat rows, teachers deliver one standard lecture, and every student is expected to perform at the exact same level -- learning at the same pace and in the same way as peers.

The traditional education system doesn't serve the needs of the current generation, much less the demands of the next. To succeed, students must learn not only the three Rs but also skills for jobs we can't yet conceive. Study after study shows that to compete in the workforce of the future, today's children will need to collaborate to solve problems and use creative approaches and analyses. They'll also need to continually develop new skills by engaging in self-directed learning.

So how does this look in the real world? Consider the three examples below. Each highlights a disconnect between the modern workplace and traditional education. On the more positive side, each scenario also illustrates ways in which the personalized learning model can graduate students who are ready to contribute to our changing workforce.

Collaboration changes everything.

Your newly hired millennial presents you with an idea to improve the way the widgets division distributes its product. You ask, "Did you work with the head of distribution in the widgets department on this?" No, your fresh-faced millennial says. This is the moment you realize your bright employee lacks strong collaboration skills as well as an understanding of how much more useful ideas can be with input from others.

Think back to your own school years. If you asked the student seated next to you to share her ideas on a challenging problem, you likely were scolded for talking in class or sent to the principal's office for cheating. You were rewarded for what you accomplished on your own, not what you could do with others.

The traditional education model teaches us not to collaborate. In most cases, it punishes us -- and that's the wrong lesson for future success. The workplace values collaboration skills as well as people who are adept at working with others to create better solutions. Personalized learning encourages students to coordinate their project work and assesses them on solutions they've discovered together.

Related: How Do You Incentivize Kids to Do Better in School? Build a Social Network That Rewards Them

Creativity starts now.

Answer this: How many golf balls fit inside a school bus? It's a fairly common interview question at Google and other leading-edge companies. How would you answer?

In fact, it's not your response that intrigues recruiters but how you answer the question. Every hiring manager I know uses a question like this to test for creativity and similar skills. It's unlikely you'll need to fill a bus with golf balls, but employers want assurance you know how to solve problems that challenge the imagination and present opportunities to develop creative processes.

Let's rewind again. Your middle-school geography assignment is to find a news article that mentions any county in the northern hemisphere. You scour various reports and find one about a tiny South-Asian country you've never heard of. Curious, you read about its history and culture. When your teachers calls on you the next day, you share some of the nation's more fascinating facts -- but you're stopped short. "We needed only the name of the country, thank you," your teacher says. Your newfound interest and initiative go unrewarded.

The traditional education model values our ability to find the one right answer using the one right approach. It's uncommon to encourage students to look beyond the answer. This teaches us there is only one final solution and it's defined by authority -- not the best model for career success. By contrast, personalized learning emphasizes the development of creativity. These methods inspire learners to come up with their own ways of approaching and solving problems. Reciting facts rarely is needed in the workplace. Teachers who spend less time on rote memorization and more on how to apply critical-thinking skills support students in ways that matter.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Help Teach the First Kid to Land on Mars

All our learning is self-directed.

Imagine you're an engineer, recently promoted to manage your company's production line. In your first week, your boss asks you to create a budget. You know nothing about management accounting. How do you approach the project? Step one is figuring out what you need to know (basic accounting). Step two identifies where to get the knowledge. Online course? A friend in accounting? Corporate training program? It's your choice -- pick what works best for you.

Back to school: You're in sixth-grade history class, with a question about the Declaration of Independence. But today's lesson plan focuses on the Battle of Waterloo. Your question goes unanswered for another day or maybe longer, until you can access another information source. The traditional education model gives students very little say in what they learn. The only way to gain knowledge is to follow a set curriculum in a set order. That's not the kind of employee a forward-thinking company wants.

Personalized learning allows children to explore according to their own curiosity. Students in these classrooms know where to find resources to help them learn more. Just as important, they're given time to puzzle out the solutions. Curious students are engaged students. They learn more about the topic and also gain experience trialing different processes. As a result, they find which approaches work best for them.

Related: 5 Problems Business School Won't Prepare You For

One of my favorite quotes often is attributed to Albert Einstein: "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid."

We're long past the industrial age, which valued uniformity and repetition. Capital was power. We're also moving quickly beyond the information age and its fixation on efficiency and speed. Knowledge was power. Today, we're well into the connected age. Our greatest assets are creativity, collaboration and self-direction. Power is being able to apply knowledge in creative ways.

Based on NWEA assessment data, students in school districts that adopt personalized learning models are showing improvements in math and reading scores in excess of 100 percent. Students report feeling they have more of a say in directing their own education. Personalized learning is working for many children today. But we must do more. Our kids and our economic future depend on it.

Anthony Kim

Founder & CEO of Education Elements

Anthony is the author of Personalized Learning Playbook, Why the Time is Now. He has contributed to many other publications on new school models including Lessons Learned from Blended Programs: Experiences and Recommendations from the Field. Anthony is a nationally recognized speaker on personalized learning and his work has been referenced by the Christensen Institute, iNACOL, EdSurge, CompetencyWorks, and numerous other research reports. His work includes partnering with districts across the country who are implementing personalized and blended learning through Education Elements. Beyond implementing personalized learning models, Anthony focuses his research on organizational design and culture of innovation at school districts. Though this research, he is currently working on a new book, called Responsive Ed, which bring self-organization strategies to districts so that they can be more responsive to the changing needs of the community. Anthony is a graduate of Cornell University and lives in San Francisco.


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