Lifelong Learning is the Way to Overcome Disruptive Economic Forces

An Essay by Anne Wicks, Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute

The world and the economy is changing – fast.  The ability to adapt one's skills is no longer nice to have, but is a necessity for the modern world.

Anne WIcks at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership, April 18, 2018. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

The world is changing so rapidly that we cannot confidently predict the kinds of jobs that people will be doing in 20 or 30 years. What we can predict is that adaptability and continuous learning will be critical for tomorrow’s professionals. We want today’s young people to assume that lifelong learning is common because they will have to adapt in their working lives. 

We can all conjure up news coverage (or personal experiences) of the traumatic impact of factory or industry closures on communities. Suddenly laid-off employees often struggle mightily to adapt and recover, and their communities along with them. Industries always evolve through innovation and competition, so we should expect volatility and change. The ability to adapt must become a must-have skill instead of a nice-to-have skill.  Learning is like breathing. 

The ability to adapt must become a must-have skill instead of a nice-to-have skill.  Learning is like breathing.

Personalized learning

 Of course, this raises the question: How do you create lifelong learners?

One way to do this is through personalized learning. This relatively new area of education work means instruction that offers pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments to meet individual student's needs. Some educators would call this differentiated instruction – or better yet, simply good teaching – and they are not wrong.

Schools and districts are starting to work more explicitly to bring this practice (and the tools and supports to implement it well) to their students. Personalized learning can be particularly powerful by giving young people ownership over their education and by connecting their education to the bigger vision they have for themselves and their lives. 

In the case of one charter school organization that I support, students had a dashboard that showed their own school data. They could see the progress they were making in a subject. They could see what was coming next, and whether they were on track to complete all the material and learning objectives for the class. 

This connection between a student and their work is transformative. It helps kids see that their efforts matter. It’s not just about if someone’s born smart. You get smarter as you work at it. You master new skills with practice and planning and help, which is a crucial concept for students to learn. 

For example, in one classroom, a teacher very clearly outlined how to get an A, B, C, D, or F grade in the course.  Students who get A’s master this material and make this kind of progress, students who get B’s do this level of work, etc.

The tone was straightforward, not scolding. If you’re doing X, you will get a C. If you do X plus Y, you will get a B. And if you do X plus Y plus Z, you will get an A. It was within the reach of everyone to make the effort and do the work – and, importantly, it was transparent for the students from day one. 

Schools that execute personalized learning well also make explicit connections between the work that students are doing and the visions that they have for their futures. For many young people, they may not have exposure to many options. 

Schools that execute personalized learning well also make explicit connections between the work that students are doing and the visions that they have for their futures. For many young people, they may not have exposure to many options.

They may be first in their family to attend college, or have limited exposure to a range of possible professionals. Students in personalized learning environments are often part of advisory groups, a small group of peers and a teacher/coach where they discuss their work, their future plans, what help they need, and how or why what they are doing now can lead them to a life they imagine. This works because they work to understand themselves, their communities, and their worlds to help imagine and prepare for their next steps. 

The challenge comes in applying this strategy in a district with tens of thousands of students. Teachers and principals are not always trained to teach in this kind of environment; successful educators in these kinds of schools must be passionate about differentiated instruction – and have the time and supports to execute that well.

Finding, developing, and supporting those educators may be the limiting step in large-scale implementations of personalized learning. That is why I am particularly interested in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) rollout of the Summit Learning platform, the tool used by Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization with schools in California and Washington, to a cohort of traditional schools and districts.   

Anne Wicks with Dr. Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership, April 18, 2018. (Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Project-based learning

Project-based learning is another way to get students ready for a lifetime of continuous learning. This term can mean different things to different people, but it basically mirrors what many people do in the workplace each day. 

In a typical job, people often are working with collaborators around deadlines with finite resources. You must figure out how to bring something to completion, with the right kind of input and problem-solving. That exercise is completed over and over in offices, factories, retail stores, airports, hospitals, and other organizations, big and small, every day. 

But you don’t often see a similar process in a typical school or standard curriculum. Schools that have embraced project-based learning have done so deliberately by giving students the chance to practice that kind of collaborative problem-solving in their studies (that goes beyond the dreaded group-work exercise typically completed by one or two students in a larger group).

It’s important to expose kids to this way of learning early, so they don’t discover how to work on projects collaboratively in their first job. Whatever the job or industry, people will always need to work together to solve problems or develop new solutions in their professional lives, so it is important to prepare kids to do just that early and often in their learning careers.

Whatever the job or industry, people will always need to work together to solve problems or develop new solutions in their professional lives, so it is important to prepare kids to do just that early and often in their learning careers.

College and career

As we think about lifelong learning, we need to avoid the false dichotomy that students face a choice between college or career. We need to train students for college and career. 

This requires a strong academic foundation, one that allows you to adapt as your interests change. Many people have gotten a degree in one subject and have gone on to work in something else (or several something else’s over time).

Kids are no different. The thought that a student would make a determining decision about their career at age 16 or 17 is lunacy. No matter what they do, they will need a strong academic foundation along with exposure to and awareness of a range of things. Internships and early college high school help make that happen.  A young person may decide to pursue a certificate and become a welder, but that young person should also know what steps to take to attend college and become a lawyer, for example. 

We need to combine that exposure with planning and advising. Students then can identify what the path to college or the military looks like. Or they may see that here’s a company in town that is recruiting people into their certification program. That way, students would have multiple choices in front of them and could know how to make decisions about what comes next.

There are several examples of how districts and cities can increase college and career preparedness, and we highlight three in a recent Spotlight. New York City, for example, has a strong partnership with City University of New York (CUNY). For a number of years, they have had an early college program that allows kids to take CUNY classes, taught by CUNY faculty, while still in high school. 

Once they finish high school, they enter college with more credits. They also earn more credits in their first semester than kids who have not participated in the program, and they have a higher first semester GPA.

Partnerships like these expose students to how college works. This knowledge and experience sets them up well to stay on track and complete their degrees, ideally with less cost or debt. 

Each of these strategies – personalized learning, project-based learning, and college and career readiness – enable students to continue to learn throughout their lives. As they do, they will possess the skills to adapt to any economic upheaval that might come their way.

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