I have been thinking quite a bit recently (and I am certainly not the only one) about how much of the curriculum delivered in the classroom actually prepares students for success in their professional and personal lives. There is so much discourse out there about 21st-century skills and the preponderance of competency development over knowledge retention. Yet positioning these as antithetical is a false dichotomy; one needs to have a certain amount of content knowledge to pose the right questions that, in turn, provide frameworks for projects that develop critical thinking, allow for collaboration and creativity, and give students something to communicate. There are tradeoffs for sure, but we should think about the relationship between competencies and content as more of a double helix than a continuum.
That said, while few administrators or teachers would contest the idea that schools should help learners acquire the tools, dispositions, and skills to be professionally and personally successful (whatever that means), what happens in the classroom doesn’t always prepare students for what they will face outside school. What and how schools assess learning is a big factor in breaking this connection. Too often we assess the features of the work rather than the quality of the thinking behind it. The mechanics of writing, for instance, are only important insofar that they support or hinder the communication of ideas. So why do some teachers place so much emphasis (and weigh grading so heavily) on technical or algorithmic skills? Mechanics are tools for a greater purpose—impact—they are not ends in themselves.
People succeed in the workforce not based on what they learned, but how they apply their learning.* Success in the jobs of the fourth industrial revolution will be built on the ideas we generate in a world so integrated that not even genomes will remain untouched.† Success will require flexibility and the productive leveraging of human and digital networks to implement these ideas. Success will demand that these ideas be communicated in the most effective (and efficient!) ways possible, through an exponentially growing number of channels. Success will be all about impact on the world, others, and oneself.
What if we added a dimension to teachers’ continuous professional development that takes them beyond the school, to observe the dynamics of different industries, to be part of how things are done in other sectors? What if we involved them in experiences that provided different perspectives to those found in academia? What if, when these teachers came back, the school reflected on the learning and adapted curriculum to the changing conditions of the workplace?
What if teachers were required to go on externships as part of their PD?
An externship would have a teacher temporarily seconded to an organization in the private, public, or non-profit sector. The externship would be a sort of research project to understand and report on how impact is delivered and measured in these organizations, drawing lessons about how the school’s curriculum can prepare students better. They would allow teachers to see what matters and what matters less in the world of work. Of course, these lessons would come from the present and not necessarily be fully in line with what the students will encounter when they’re ready to join the workforce (in five, ten, fifteen years), but it’s a start.
Externships would enrich learning across the school community. They would bring diverse ideas and experiences to the forefront. Externships would feed a culture of lifelong learning. They would fuel innovation and help define learning priorities. Externships serve as (field) research, something primordial to set the goals of any endeavor. Externships would serve to re-connect school and what lies ahead after school.
Let’s broaden PD beyond classroom practice and carry back lessons that feed the classroom.
Let’s provide teachers with the opportunities to participate in externships to develop their craft, strengthen the curriculum, and provide richer experiences for all learners in the changing world.
*Seymour Sarason even argued that learning only exists if and when it is applied to new contexts.
† The first industrial revolution was brought about by mechanization, the second by mass production, the third by digitalization, and the fourth will be about AI, AR, genome editing, and the Internet of Things, changing the way humans create value and make sense of the world.