Nearly sixty years ago, speaking about the implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
With all the attention on reopening schools during a national pandemic, school leaders and policymakers need to also critically focus on how we will prepare students for the world after the pandemic.
Our young people, called Generation Z-ers, already were faced with high college debt, mostly short term “gig” jobs with few or no benefits like health insurance, and few opportunities for mentorships or internships with corporations or non-profits that would give them better job skills.
For Generation Z, Covid-19 has laid bare an already simmering gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” favoring those who can social distance, those who had SAT and AP tutoring, those who had access to technology, those with access to health care and those whose parents have jobs and could work from home.
More than ever, we need to teach students how to “upskill,” as Ramona Schindelheim of the nonprofit Working Nation speaks of often when talking about the future of work. The folks at Working Nation have warned of the growing gap between K-16 drivers and the needs of the workforce, even prior to the pandemic.
Traditional academic drivers include focus on standardized tests linked to punitive accountability for teachers and narrowing of the curriculum to what’s tested. It is no secret that many business leaders lament the lack of “soft” and “hard” skills among college graduates. These include emotional and relational intelligence as well as technical, job-specific expertise and knowledge.
Upskilling is a lifelong disposition to improve oneself in both soft and hard skills. In order to survive the post-pandemic world, upskilling is necessary for everyone, not only for individuals, but also for institutions, businesses, nonprofits, universities and schools. Millions of teachers are upskilling their technical expertise to deliver engaging, relevant and rigorous instruction through distance learning. Some are thriving. Many are not, and this is a serious challenge for public education.
Some teachers and many administrators and educational leaders believe that “hybrid” and distance learning is temporary and that after this crisis passes, we can go back to the good old status quo, including traditional “college ready” academic drivers. Going back to the status quo will only exacerbate the equity gaps in access to soft and hard skills, and also deepen the crisis in building cohesion among K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year institutions and the workforce.
As Joe Fuller, professor at Harvard Business School, points out, hundreds of thousands of businesses have pivoted to a remote world, and we are witnessing a rapid and vicious Darwinian survival of the fittest. The pandemic has forced businesses to evolve immediately or die.
Fuller and many others would argue that there is no going back and that the world of work will forever be changed. We in education, therefore, had better prepare young people for a hybrid economy, one that values both soft and hard skills.
We need to stop pining for the past and wake up to the fact that this is a teachable moment, an opportunity to align what we teach them so that students learn how to upskill throughout their lives, including how to navigate and thrive in a virtual hybrid world.
There are three things, therefore, that districts should focus on right now:
- Make soft skills the drivers of instruction. These are commonly known as the development and cultivation of emotional intelligence and relational leadership skills. In the Anaheim Union High School District, we call these the 5Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and compassion (including self-compassion). These are critical building blocks of lifelong skills for success.
- Partner with businesses, non-profits and community colleges to develop internships, mentorships, certificates and dual credit opportunities, focusing on hard skills or industry specific knowledge and applied learning experiences.
- Invest in teacher capacity for creativity and innovation, supporting them in upskilling through the National Standards for Quality Online Learning where they can learn how to use technology, including mastering learning management systems.
In our current high stakes world where the U.S. is rapidly sliding backwards in innovation and problem solving, it is vital that students get vested early in solving the world’s problems through the lens of social justice and compassion, so that they can be positioned to create new jobs and industries which will help them individually, but more importantly, help propel the country forward in an increasingly uncertain and volatile economy.
There is a Zen Buddhist saying that is simple but especially resonates: “The obstacle is the way.”
Covid-19 is the obstacle, but it is also the way forward. Now is not the time to have this disease push us back to the old ways. Let us instead move forward, on the path together, with courage and compassion. That is the way.
Michael Matsuda is superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District.
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