Think back to high school. What do you still remember? Was it what you learned in the classroom or is it what you learned in the hallways, on the playing field or outside those hallowed halls that had the biggest impact?
The rote memorization of facts and figures in our schools is becoming less important. What’s becoming ever more essential, however, is understanding how to pull together disparate knowledge and skills and apply them to increasingly complex situations. There’s a shift underway from simply teaching information to ensuring young people are resilient and adaptable.
We’re a facing a future where the past is no longer a prologue to the future. The pace of change in our world is accelerating, and technology continues to disrupt almost every facet of our lives and economy. Being able to cope with the unpredictable is becoming increasingly vital. A recent U.S. Department of Labor report suggests that nearly a third of today’s schoolchildren, when they graduate from high school, will land jobs that don’t currently exist.
At the same time, Canadian young people face an ever-challenging fiscal reality. Youth unemployment has stagnated, and precarious employment has been rising since the late 1980s. The transition to adulthood is increasingly delayed and the stability adulthood once promised can no longer be relied upon. Temporary contracts, working at multiple jobs to make ends meet, frequent career changes and a need for enhancing skills and retraining means that young people are likely to go back and forth between school and work – and between stability and instability – throughout their adult lives in a way that previous generations never did.
Given this new reality, teaching young people information and basic skills is no longer good enough. We simply don’t know what they will need to know by the time they’re ready to enter the labour market – or by the time they’re beginning their second, third or fourth career. There’s a growing consensus among educators, employers, youth-serving agencies and young people themselves that we must support them in becoming resilient and adaptable. In other words, we need to help them develop their so-called competencies.
The OECD defines competencies as more than just knowledge or skills – “the what.” Rather, a competency is the ability to tap into the dynamic relationships among a series of skills and apply them in a variety of complex and variable situations – “the how.” Often cited examples of competencies, or “the how,” include problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
Students need supportive environments in which they can meaningfully experiment, explore, discover, risk, fail and do.
This shift to a focus on competencies not only requires us to change what is being taught, it also requires that we move away from the very idea of “teaching.” According to the Ontario government’s 21st Century Competencies Report, truly equipping young people with the competencies they will need means no longer seeing them as “passive recipients of knowledge,” but instead encouraging them to be active “decision-makers about the nature and structure of their own learning.” Students need supportive environments in which they can meaningfully experiment, explore, discover, risk, fail and do.
When the Counselling Foundation of Canada was created in 1959, career counselling was still an emerging practice. The foundation’s benefactor, Frank Lawson, believed it was crucial that young people were offered support as they identified their career paths. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Counselling Foundation would play a central role in legitimizing the field of career counselling, a field that is now embraced by secondary and post-secondary education institutions as well as community-based organizations across Canada.
More recently, the foundation has started to focus more attention on programs that help young people reflect on the competencies they are learning – both in and out of the classroom. An example of this is Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Career Integrated Learning Project, which identifies in the course syllabus the competencies students may develop in the classroom and via group projects. The Counselling Foundation, in partnership with the Canada West Foundation, also released a report entitled “Know, Do, Understand” that examines where, and to what degree, competency frameworks are being incorporated into provincial and territorial education policies.
But we need to move beyond the classroom. There is a growing understanding that learning does not just take place in the classroom, and instead more emphasis and value are being placed on “life-wide informal learning and experiential learning.” Experts in the field of neuroscience explain that learning has the most impact when it’s interspersed with meaningful engagement. When a young person can translate what they have learned quickly into action connected to something they care deeply about, what they learn “really sticks.” The increasing prevalence at universities of co-curricular records that place value on civic and community engagement is an exciting example of this shift in perspective.
Supporting young people as they develop and recognize their competencies is key, but we also need to ensure that employers and policy-makers are ready to meet young people half way. It’s not enough to enter the job market fully equipped for the future of work — opportunities for young people to fully realize their potential must also await them. Employers must be ready to value their contributions, and policy-makers need to ensure that youth employment programs do not rely on outdated assumptions but instead are focused on the future. Assessing and valuing what young people know and are capable of, rather than simply considering their credentials, are essential.
Equipping young people for a world that is ever-changing won’t be easy, but it must be done. The good news is that young people are ready to adapt. But can those of us who support them – parents, educators, youth organizations, employers and policy-makers – change as quickly as they need us to?
This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.
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