By Brad Choyt for the Valley News (Published in print: Tuesday, October 10, 2017)

What an exciting, yet challenging time to be in education. For teachers who continuously strive to prepare students for the challenges they will face in their lifetimes, there is an endless amount of research to guide decisions about to teach and the skills students need to be successful.

Such choices are not new. Educational reform that prepares students for rapidly changing circumstances dates back at least to the late 19th and early 20th century, to the work of John Dewey. In his day, Dewey argued that schools themselves are inherently social institutions that require innovative approaches to prepare students for real-world challenges.

But even someone as forward-thinking as Dewey could not have anticipated the pace of change facing the current generation of students. The paths educators are blazing have infinitely more variables now than they did 100 years ago and the consequences of today’s educational reforms are far less certain.

Consider these examples of marketplace paradigms: the world’s most popular media site, Facebook, does not create its own content; the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns neither buildings nor land; the dominant advertising and classified website, Craigslist, does not maintain formal relations with its clients; the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no vehicles; and two of the world’s most valuable retailers, eBay and Alibaba, do not stock inventories.

What’s more, when I described these business models to my 17-year-old son, he didn’t bat an eye. Not only have the jobs associated with major companies changed dramatically in the last 10 years, young people have become accustomed to these changes almost as fast as they are happening. It is no surprise, then, that businesses on the forefront of creating these information-based models are poised for further growth.

Students today might not spend a lot of time worrying about the exact kind of job they will have after they graduate for the simple reason that many of those positions don’t currently exist. Millennials already assume that they will, more often than not, be required to use technologies that have yet to be invented as they transition between five or more different careers before they retire. It is little wonder that students preparing for this new reality might lack the motivation to sit through a PowerPoint lecture in classes then answer homework questions at the end of the chapter in their textbook.

So how do educational models remain relevant? I have noted two strategies that show particular promise. The first is when teachers provide students with knowledge and skills that that are flexible and, we hope, not easily supplanted by technology. A recent study by the Oxford Martin School predicted that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at high risk of being lost to machines over the next two decades. Considering computers require only seconds to upload the factual information students learn in all their years of school and that the next generation of computers will be even faster and more powerful, competition from machines will only become more acute. With increased access to virtually free information, educators need to focus on providing a uniquely human range of knowledge and skills to prepare students for the 53 percent of the positions that will remain in demand.

The second strategy is to orient education toward entrepreneurship, providing more hands-on problems for students to solve and fostering a creative process that will give students their competitive edge. Curricula should offer ample opportunities to formulate practical approaches to a range of uncharted issues. Lessons also should be taught in collaborative settings so that students have the chance to work with and learn from others who bring complementary skill sets and to broaden their interpretations of information.

While these two approaches may differ in terms of curriculum and pedagogy, they are not necessarily in conflict. Both lead to a place where teachers can better define both the knowledge that is worth learning and the skills that are worth mastering. In short, they offer a redefinition of education, one that prepares students for largely unknown careers and vastly reconfigured workplaces.

Will schools have to adapt? Yes. And in doing so, educators will define what is both practical and useful to students over the long haul. But at the same time, we must continually evaluate and implement educational practices that provide students with a practical, broader, and hopefully, more rewarding ways of being in the world, even as the landscape shifts around us.

Brad Choyt is Head of School at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.

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