The future will demand more from our students than being able to follow directions, comply with expectations, and perform standardized tasks. Repetitive tasks and standardized processes increasingly can and will be performed by machines. The World Economic Forum recently projected that within eight years more than half of the tasks for which humans are paid will be performed by technology. Meanwhile, more than half of the jobs today’s students will hold do not yet exist. Learned skills that used to have a life cycle of three decades now have utility for five years. Future success requires constant learning and unlearning, adaptation and upskilling, curiosity and imagination, and confidence and grit.
Workers proficient at managing standardized processes, applying learned formulas, and employing established protocols likely will find themselves falling short of expectations and at risk of being held back from success they seek. Meanwhile, opportunities for motivated learners possessing skills necessary to learn independently will fill the future. It is they who will take responsibility for growing their knowledge, will be curious and imaginative, will be prepared to test assumptions and question perceptions, and who will possess the courage and confidence to engage what is yet to be understood.
Yet, the truth is that the schools most of us experienced and most students experience today were designed to prepare proficient students, not develop skilled learners. If we hope to make the transition necessary to prepare young people for their future, we need to change their learning experience. Four shifts can help us move beyond simply preparing proficient students to preparing skilled, motivated, independent learners. Here is how a student might describe learning experiences these shifts can highlight.
Shift #1. I spend less time and energy doing what I am told and give more time and attention to taking responsibility and ownership for my learning. I have more choices in what and how I will learn, a stronger voice in my learning experience, and more control over the goals that guide my learning. I am open to receive more timely, descriptive, focused, and actionable feedback on my learning before a grade is assigned to my work. Further, because I have more control, I see more purpose and value in what I am learning.
Shift #2. My learning is shifting from dependence on being motivated by and engaged in teacher directed activities and instead to giving more attention to building learning and problem-solving skills and strategies, making decisions about approaches and resources, and organizing and managing my work. Though making more mistakes than I used to, I am actively learning more from them. My learning involves more open-ended activities allowing me to plan, schedule, and monitor my work. Spending more time reflecting and adjusting my thinking and actions, I am learning to enlist the support of others by asking questions, tapping resources, and exploring perspectives other than my own.
Shift #3. I spend less time waiting to be instructed and following directions and more time and energy dealing with ambiguity and figuring out how to solve problems. When I need help, my teacher is more likely to share potential models and suggest alternatives approaches than give me answers to the problem on which I am working. Not having a set-by-step process to follow can be frustrating, but it also gives me more control over my learning. Meanwhile, solving problems in this way gives me more confidence and pride than when I simply follow a given path. As a result, I learn more self-discipline and patience.
Shift #4. I am less preoccupied with simply finding the correct answer and more committed to focusing on the best processes and finding the best path to an insightful and responsible outcome. I am discovering there is more than one way to find a solution, even though some approaches work better than others. I often must make multiple attempts, but I find I can learn a lot from what does not work. Focusing on the learning experience and process, I know if my work is good, the grade I receive will take care of itself.
Of course, proficiency will continue to be important; it is just not enough to prepare students for their future. The good news is that we do not have to choose between proficiency and skilled learning. We can build proficiency while also nurturing skilled, independent learners.