Martin: Teaching Transferable Skills

Oct 13, 2015

Everywhere you look nowadays, you can see how technology and globalization are reshaping our society. From smartphones, to outsourcing, to the new sharing economy, these changes are coming so fast, it’s often hard to plan for what’s next. For instance, the top-ranked futurist Thomas Frey predicts that half of all current jobs will disappear by 2030.

We’ve already seen ATMs supplant bank tellers and robots displace assembly-line workers. Soon self-piloted cars will replace drivers, drones will replace deliverymen, soldiers and pilots, and “bots” will replace fishermen, miners, and farmers.

If you’re a parent like me, asking your kid the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has never seemed scarier. And while schools and universities aim to make their students career-ready, how do you prepare for jobs that don’t even exist yet?

Perhaps it boils down to what Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe likes to say, “We need to teach our students skills that a computer can’t do.”

This explains in part why many Vermont schools are making transferable skills a key part of their new graduation requirements. Like reading and writing, these skills transfer across different subjects. For example, you need strong habits of learning and problem-solving skills, no matter the class or project. More importantly, these skills transfer well to life after high school, and even from job to job after that.

Vermont is leading the way in some of this new thinking about curriculum, notably with Act 77, the Flexible Pathways law. However, this new approach is not a local phenomenon — experts from all over the world are recommending we redesign education to reflect fast-moving social and economic change.

For example, Yong Zhao, author of World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, wants schools to foster student autonomy, develop global competence, and connect to real life. In his upcoming keynote at the annual Rowland Conference later this month at UVM, he’ll be giving his audience some ideas about where to begin.

Most school course catalogues have changed little in the last 50 years, even as the world we live in has changed dramatically. For a long time, the traditional curriculum did a good job of preparing students for long careers in relatively stable fields of expertise. Our students still need traditional subjects, but we need to rethink how we prepare students for a rapidly-changing workplace. Only then will they be ready to take on whatever life throws at them.