The two questions that school and education are supposed to answer are: ‘How much do you know?’ and ‘What can you do with what you know?’
Entire school systems are based on answering either one or the other question, or so we believe. The hearsay goes like this – Indian (and countries of the Far East) focus on knowledge, and the countries of the West teach their students to apply this knowledge. So, a physics student will not only have learned how a circuit works but would have some hands-on experience in building circuits. Or robots. Or more. In India, the ‘circuit project’ is likely to have been purchased from a shop specializing in this even if a school attempts to bring this application or skill to the students. This is as far as most go, and yet none of this is enough to bridge the gap between knowing and doing.
Our students are unemployable, go the reports. Skills gap white papers have been doing the rounds for over two decades where it is made amply clear that schools, and worse, universities are not doing the basic job of training the workforce. Purists in education raise their hands in horror – we prepare students for life, for higher-order goals, not mere employment! Well, in times like these, we all have to help our student get employed. We all understand the need, yet our schools do not skill us for life.
The real questions that schools need to focus on are not Knowledge vs Skills as we have seen reflected in curricula and pedagogy. The real question for schools should be – how can the students learn to create value? Value is created in both, society and in the workplace when a certain set of behaviors meet specific goals. Value is created when we help an old person across the street, the value is also created when we demonstrate our ability to fix a leaky tap or build a bookshelf, the value is created when we demonstrate knowledge of mathematical theory and learn how to build forward. The goal of value creation is inclusive – for even rote learning finds its appropriate place. Value is also created when a poem memorized long ago is quoted to soothe and set up a person for their next success.
School systems often decide that ‘skills’ merely refers to the old-fashioned vocational skills that included working in the trades such as building, plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing, etc. The skills that we need for the 21st century are not just about what you can do, but also how well you do them, and about how much an employer can rely on you to deliver value to their clients. The skills that forward-looking schools are encouraged to include are often called soft skills – Creativity, Communication, Reliability, team working and similar abilities are prime. These are not soft skills or mere fancy add-ons to employers. They go to the core of whether the student is a valuable employee or not. If the student does not transform into a value-creating employee very rapidly, there is no reason for them to remain in work.
This is a challenge for schools – how can they train students in creativity and reliability, or in professional communication and negotiation, or even cultural sensitivity – and still maintain their core goals of creating marks machines? Schools that have slipped down the marks ladder have felt the brunt of ‘loss of reputation’ because marks are a tangible demonstration of value.
Schools face three challenges here:
- Their teachers are so steeped in the old industrial age assembly line rote learning methods that they do not even recognize the new paradigm. Speak to them about including employability skills and many of them are not even able to comprehend the shift. This is a real challenge for school leaders who need to be able to move school teaching (and university too) to meet the real needs of the students for the future.
- Even if the syllabus and curriculum to make room for these new skills that equip students for professional life, there are practical constraints on the ground. For example, take teamwork. Creating group projects is easy in schools with a lot of technology, in boarding schools where there is time to work together after classes, or for rich families who can afford the technology/transport/space, but it is really challenging in most normal schools. A group project (even if it is a school poster or a simple report) ends up being split into smaller tasks and each student works a part of the whole because they are not able to communicate in real-time and pass the work back and forth.
- Assessment, of course, rules our allocation of time and resources, and it is incredibly challenging to give marks for things that really matter in the workplace such as peer mentoring, creativity and work attitudes. Some, such as attitudes and values are so context-driven that any attempt at measuring it ends up being a farce. The very good CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation) process run at schools in India tried to assess soft skills. Sadly, most have not been able to actually understand the idea, let alone run it successfully.
We are asking for a shift in the way we look at schools, at skills, and studies. While some of us want to grow up to be intellectuals, most of us want jobs. And this is the cue to schools – each time you set a task or a test, look at what output you expect from it and ask yourself – Does this create value? Maybe even, will someone pay for this? Does it build towards something that the market will value? If we can build this question into a part of what we do, then I think we would have taken a step towards filling the employability gap.