Schuler: Redefining Ready — Will COVID-19 Inspire Educators to Better Prepare Students for an Uncertain Future?

Educators have always known that skills like creativity, flexibility and resilience are foundational to student success. But the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how important it is to equip our pre-K-12 students with those skills.

Early educators focused on the social and emotional development of the whole child, in particular, have been swimming upstream against a rising tide of accountability. As a result of this focus among policymakers (and sometimes parents) on high-stakes assessment, educators have deprioritized teaching human skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration and adaptability, and the project- and inquiry-based approaches that foster those skills. However, the growing disconnect between school and the future of work and concerns over student well-being have, in recent years, led to greater interest among policymakers, educators and parents in those approaches to teaching and learning — and the pandemic is likely to turn that interest into an imperative.

If the disruption caused by COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s the value of adaptability in the face of upheaval. It’s the power of agency and the ability to acknowledge and direct one’s learning. As the economic landscape continues to evolve, workers who are adaptable and resilient will be the most sought-after. After all, they will be the ones best equipped to learn new skills to meet the changing needs of the labor market or economy, as automation replaces jobs that may not return after a post-pandemic recovery.

Thankfully, a growing number of schools and districts were already taking those skill sets more seriously before the pandemic. As early as 2015, AASA’s Redefining Ready! initiative defined criteria for determining whether a student is college- or career-ready, while raising critical questions about life readiness: Will students leave high school with a growth mindset? Do they have the grit and perseverance to achieve their goals in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges? Do they have a sense of purpose that motivates them as they move to college or the workforce and beyond?

Preparing students in this way requires a different kind of curriculum; it can’t be learned in a textbook. It demands crafting authentic experiences that enable students to solve challenges, explore ways to add value to their communities and connect with the world of work. In my district, entrepreneurship has been a core approach, alongside internships and mentoring programs, for helping students develop the skills that help them navigate an uncertain world.

Through our work with the nonprofit Uncharted Learning, we’ve exposed hundreds of students to the entrepreneurial process: identifying a problem in their communities, developing a solution, and then getting that solution into the hands of the right people. Some of our students launched startups, complete with funding, that turned into successful companies or led to careers in similar fields.

But we also stress the importance of failure as a catalyst for growth. Embrace it, we tell our students. Grow because of it. Then move on. But we don’t leave them twisting in the wind; we guide them through their failure, with mentors always asking: Why didn’t this work? What did work? What can you learn for the next iteration?

Students learn to take risks, trust advisers and learn from mistakes.

An emphasis on entrepreneurship can also give students something else they crave: real-world experience. Our students receive workforce opportunities that help prepare them for a future where thriving in the face of change is a highly prized skill. Our teachers prepare them to explore their passions and interests — and become lifelong learners.

It’s no wonder, as one study found, that college students who took two or more core entrepreneurship electives were much more likely to become entrepreneurs than those who didn’t.

“It is these relevant experiences that challenge students to solve real problems in their communities and the world,” writes John Couch, Apple’s first vice president of education and a co-author of Rewiring Education: How Technology Can Unlock Every Student’s Potential. “These experiences help fuel their drive to be lifelong learners and innovators.”

Policy is finally catching up to what great teachers have always known. In the pre-COVID era, the Every Student Succeeds Act enabled school districts to embrace nontraditional instructional models. The desire for workers who can think critically, adapt quickly and collaborate effectively will only grow in importance as technology continues to reshape entire industries. The careers many students envision for themselves could be substantially different upon graduation. Students must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. They must learn how to stumble, recover and keep moving forward and learning. And they must do so with purpose, which provides them with the motivation and the tools needed to navigate an ambiguous world.

We know that strong foundations in technology are important for a future where a command of data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence is essential for filling the roles that now top LinkedIn’s annual list of emerging jobs. But what if the knowledge and skills students need to thrive and succeed amid ambiguity aren’t new? What if, as a recent analysis from Strada Education Network and Emsi found, the graduates who are best poised to succeed in the job market are those who combine technical skills with traits such as flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness?

Perhaps what’s needed to prepare our young people for the future isn’t so different after all.

Dr. David Schuler is superintendent of Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a past president of the School Superintendents Association and the 2018 National Superintendent of the Year. 

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