As part of a project to redefine college and career readiness in education, my colleague and I interviewed 12 young people working at innovative companies in the Bay Area. Our goal was to understand what innovative working environments look like and what skills and attributes are needed to be successful. The idea is to use this information to help schools think about the future of work and what they can do to better prepare their students for that future.
The economy and workplace are changing rapidly, and we need to rethink the ways in which we design educational systems to keep pace. As more work becomes automated, its the truly human skills - creativity, problem-solving, empathy - that matter most for success in the workplace, not to mention for life satisfaction generally. So in thinking about transforming education from a mechanistic system of efficiency to a system that optimizes for people, we gleaned some insights from these 12 conversations we think are important to consider.
A student will likely never be fully prepared for any challenge they face, whether at work or in personal lives. A programming language taught in school may not be the one used 10 or even 5 years later in the workplace. Getting comfortable with change and ambiguity is key. Our interviewees talked often of changing goals, priorities, and organizational structures.
Given that, how can we prepare students to deal with change and ambiguity successfully? The terms growth mindset and lifelong learning seem clichéd at this point, but that's really what we're getting at here. Students must be prepared to face unstructured challenges by asking the right questions, and thinking analytically and creatively about solutions even if they’ve had no prior experience. Our interviewees often had to teach themselves new skills to come to a solution, or find the right expert to consult.
This requires both confidence, to believe in oneself to overcome a challenge, and vulnerability, to know when to seek out help from those more experienced. These "soft skills" can and should be trained in the context of school.
Furthermore, the fundamental structure of these workplaces was the team, not the individual, so social skills, especially communication, were key to getting things done and thriving in a team-based setting.
Finally, we found that underlying most if not all the interviewees’ motivation to face new challenges at work was a genuine curiosity to learn and to improve. Finding ways to encourage this curiosity in school by making learning meaningful and rewarding will help students seek out and overcome intellectual challenges throughout their lives.