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Carol J. Carter Headshot

What If Classroom Learning Was Like the Working World?

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"I just want to say to you today that not only is your future uncertain, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it's far more uncertain than you think," said Jim Kim, president at the World Bank in his commencement speech to the Northeastern University Class of 2013.

He goes on, however, to ensure the Class of 2013 with three words: "And that's okay." That's okay because in a recession or not, amidst the computer takeover of our workforce or not, we never have or will know what lies ahead, and our only reliable preparation for the future is to be prepared for anything.

How many of our students spend their school days learning how to navigate unchartered waters? How many college students armed with a degree were trained to be adaptable to change? How many new grads sit down in an interview and tell an employer that their number one strength is their ability to adjust to change, and are able to provide an example? Most likely, not many.

Students today attend K-12 institutions and colleges that value a high GPA and test scores, following the rules and listening to the teacher. While those measurements have their place, they aren't the only yardstick. With this narrow emphasis, the critical skills of initiative, creativity, follow-through, leadership, collaboration, communication, risk-taking and passion are often missed. A college degree was once a stepping stone to the middle class lifestyle, but not anymore. The reality for many grads is that a college degree is the gateway to landing a job below their skill level. However, there is a silver lining for those ambitious, hardworking and persistent students who aren't discouraged by a modest start and who have the skills to build a "job" into a promising career. The trouble is that school often isn't the place for students to develop the tools to create opportunities for themselves, leaving the majority of new grads paralyzed by their seemingly few and meager options.

What would happen if classrooms reflected the way companies are run? Would more grads be prepared to hit the ground running to full-time employment? Could more take a minimum wage job and turn it into a career? Would more grads have the skills to navigate the VUCA -- volatile, uncertain, changing, ambiguous -- world? The following are some practical ways all the school players could uphold a real world-of-work experience and prepare more graduates for what lies beyond school walls.

The School Culture. Thomas Friedman writes in his article, "Can't We Do Better?" that the latest PISA results show the highest performing schools have "ownership cultures." That means teachers feel like they have autonomy and that they are respected professionals. Parents are involved in the school and support their children to succeed. Students are schooled in their core subjects, but value is equally placed on their ability to lead other students, drive a process, and learn in a flipped-classroom environment, where learning takes place outside and inside the classroom. If all the players have ownership, they create a healthier learning environment and are motivated to take accountability for their own outcomes.

The Curriculum. A majority of students flock to college to a declare a business major or are encouraged to pursue a STEM degree with the hopes of being more employable, writes economics professor, Nancy Folbre in her article "College Pays, Sort Of." Remember, however, that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty, and there are many unemployed business and STEM degree holders.

To give students experiences in school that are transferable to the working world, curriculum should be interactive, co-creative, and co-delivered with their peers. Students who are engaged stakeholders will learn to think critically, to be worldly, to see from multiple perspectives, and to be passionate about their learning. With this type of active learning participation, when a student graduates from college and can't find a job in one field, he has other skill sets that will get him hired in another industry or have the skills to start his own company.

The Instructor. In the business world, many professionals have coaches that help guide them through decisions and unlock possibilities for them personally and professionally. Coaching in the classroom provides students with perspective on how their learning will impact their professional lives. The instructor who adopts coaching skills for the classroom creates deeper relationships, increased accountability, and more positive outcomes with students. There is also a plethora of local retired talent with a success track record from the world of work. These real-world coaches can support students and teachers, providing a much needed practical and real-world perspective on learning concepts and their importance.

The Student. In the world of work, most employees have to dress in a professional way. Most students are clueless about this reality. Even though innovation leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are known for their casual ensembles, the majority of professionals are still required to dress for success, wear shoes, and "look the part."

Students are also largely autonomous, except when assigned to work in groups. In the world of work, many professionals are required to work on a team, make connections within the company, and engage with clients. When students are trained as peer mentors or coaches, they earn experience as a mentor and a mentee. Through this practice, they become comfortable networking with people, gain insight to their strengths and weaknesses, master working interdependently, and learn to ask for help. All of these skills are used daily on the job.

Beyond an Education. In his recent article, Friedman also writes that those who will be successful in the future are the ones who will be constantly improving their skills and will have the self-motivation to take advantage of free or low-cost resources to stay fresh in their field. Friedman quotes futurist Marina Gorbis in predicting that when virtually everyone has access to computers and the Internet the digital divide will fall by the wayside and the "motivational divide" will take its place, dividing the people who have the motivation to be a self-driven learners and those who don't. Let's give all students the chance to improve their learning by enriching the classroom with what Costa and Kallick call the "habits of mind."

Whether large or small, public or private, non-profit or for-profit, there are certain elements of success that cross all business areas. If teachers knew these "success habits" and actively used them to facilitate, would more teachers thrive and would more students be able to deliver on or exceed the expectations employers have? How else can teachers prepare students for the ambiguities which await them? How can "learning" better develop the whole person, holding students more accountable to challenge themselves to the fullest? Is there any greater corporate asset than a motivated, self-directed, and self-aware employee?