Ready to Work: Education as a Preparation for Working Life

Life Skills September 08, 2015

We can no longer assume that being ‘in work’ is the same thing as being employed – ‘having a job’. As the world becomes more connected, so companies get bigger, but so too do opportunities emerge for all kinds of small-scale, niche and self-employed enterprises. Many people who do not have ‘jobs’ in the old-fashioned sense bid for contracts online. Websites like broker deals between people who need a task done and those why know how to do it. Elance has nine million freelancers and four million clients on its books. It is currently doing one billion dollars’ worth of business a year, and growing. 

Education is about the cultivation of competence and inclination. It is what we do to enable children to succeed in the worlds they will inhabit. We teach them to do, and to love doing, the things that will help them to flourish. Especially when we cannot know how tens of millions of children will be earning a living, those competences and inclinations have to be broad and generic. Obviously reading is one such disposition. It is every child’s right to be shown how to read, and to develop a love of reading, for example. The inclination to read is, according to the PISA tests, a more powerful predictor of life success than the bare ability to read. It opens your eyes to possibilities: new ways of earning a living, for instance. Yet the love of reading is killed, for many children, by misguided education.

But reading is only one of these key dispositions. Here are some others. There is the disposition to be your own teacher: to design learning activities and experiences for yourself, either alone or in collaboration. Young people will not be accompanied by kindly and experienced teachers for the rest of their lives; they will have to become adept at thinking, “What will be the best way to acquire the knowledge and skills I am going to need?” You don’t learn that if learning is always designed for you by your teachers. 

There is the ability to think on your feet, when your expectations are dashed and novel responses are required. In tomorrow’s world, learners will be much more in demand than knowers. But traditional education doesn’t build the capacity to cope with the unexpected. It tries to fill young people up with well-rehearsed performances of understanding – which is not the same thing at all. And those performances tend to be confined to single disciplines, whereas the real worlds of both work and play do not respect the boundaries between ‘subjects’.

There is the capacity to manage your attention. Learning how to pay attention to things that you consider to be worthwhile, and often challenging, rather than being at the mercy of every advertisement, flashing link, tweet or email that comes along, is, for many people, one of the big challengers for 21st century education. Concentration and discernment are mental muscles that grow stronger with exercise – but that growth won’t happen in a classroom where everything is beautifully quiet and orderly. Yet the ability to concentrate is crucial to ‘getting the job done’, whether that be in employment, in self-employment or for one’s personal satisfaction.

What about scepticism: the inclination to subject knowledge claims, especially ones that are written and authoritative, to critical scrutiny? Many teachers are worried that their students are too ready to believe whatever they read on the internet – yet, without thinking, they have been training their students into an attitude of credulity by treating the textbooks as if they were beyond question. Students can get A grades in examinations but not have developed this inclination to question, yet a questioning mind-set is the foundation stone of creativity and innovation, and it is these that employers say they seek, but too often fail to find, in applicants for jobs. 

Here are five dispositions that are crucial for life, work and play in the 21st century: a love of reading; the inclination to design your own learning; the capacity to think on your feet; the strength to control attention; and the disposition to question knowledge claims. Any system of schooling, no matter how well it performs in international comparisons, is miseducation if it stifles rather than nurtures these tendencies.

Guy Claxton is Visiting Professor of Education at King’s College London. He is the author of What’s the Point of School?, Intelligence in the Flesh and, with Bill Lucas, Educating Ruby: What Our Children Really Need to Learn.

He spoke at the 2014 WISE Summit: Focus – Does Assessment Kill Creativity?