During a two-year cross-country trip covering 40 states, I crossed paths with several hundred soon-to-be college graduates. I asked each soon-to-be grad about his or her plans after graduation. Keep in mind, these kids had just spent close to 20,000 hours in classrooms over a 16-year period. They had taken hundreds of tests, sat through thousands of lectures, and studied countless hours. Sadly, even with all that education, 80% answered "I don't know."
The majority of college graduates these days are well educated; unfortunately, many are woefully unprepared. Yes, they can take tests, but they lack basic workplace skills. The business community doesn't need great test-takers; the business community is starving for employees with good work ethics and strong workplace skills.
Students do need knowledge, but they also need skills. The knowledge must be relevant, and the skills must be transferable, especially since research tells us that these young people will change careers, not just jobs but careers, seven to eight times during their lives.
Adding career preparation to the educational journey is essential, and middle grades schools provide the perfect environment in which to implement this change. Middle grades students are desperate for relevance and appreciate practical applications of real-world approaches to learning.
Effective middle grades learning should include the following 21st century skills.
Communication Skills – Students must develop the ability to talk to people from all walks of life. Questioning skills and listening skills are both critical to this process. They must learn to ask simple questions; listen to answers to get ideas for next questions; and focus questions on jobs, families, and hobbies.
Networking Skills – Students must develop the skill of meeting lots of people, getting to know those people, and then staying in touch with all their contacts. Middle grades students are all familiar with the concept via social networking, so the transition to a workplace application of the process should be painless.
People Skills – Seventy percent of people who quit or lose jobs do so because they cannot get along with the people for whom they work and with whom they work. Students will need to understand the concept of compromise and the danger of burning bridges.
Tolerance – Socially, intolerance is distasteful, but, professionally, intolerance can be fatal, since 99% of workers do not get to choose their coworkers, their bosses, or their customers. Intolerance—a learned behavior, can be unlearned with the help of brave schools and educators who are willing to approach this sensitive topic, armed with proven programs and strategies.
Knowledge is valuable, but it is no longer the whole enchilada; and if the system is set up for students to simply memorize knowledge and then spit it back out on standardized tests, we have done everyone involved a tremendous disservice. We have asked young people to memorize, not learn but memorize, a bunch of information they don't see as relevant. Teachers often become frustrated with the waste of valuable class time on learning that is not meaningful, and administrators live in fear of failing to measure up to unreasonable performance requirements.
It is possible to fully prepare middle grades students while meeting the requirements of educating them, but only if we manage a balanced diet of relevant knowledge and critical skills. We owe this to every young person who puts his or her future in our hands. They deserve to be educated and prepared to succeed in the workplace.
Chad Foster is the author of two best-selling books, Teenagers Preparing for the Real World and Financial Literacy for Teens.
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education