It’s the norm in the American public school system to create hyper-focused courses that align with specific professions based in computer science and robotics. Courses in coding, for example, are aimed at preparing students for careers in coding—surprise, surprise. That approach, however, winds up limiting the career possibilities for students and fails to reflect the needs of real-world STEM jobs.
Tech programs in our schools and the skills needed in today’s workplaces, in other words—across professions and industries—are fundamentally unaligned. It’s time for an overhaul.
What the market tells us
Tech investment represented almost 80 percent of the total venture capital investments in 2019, according to Reuters. But that 80 percent figure isn’t just for “traditional tech”—it’s spread across almost every major industry, representing investments in health care tech (“healthtech”), finance, real estate, and retail.
The big insight: Technology-based professional opportunities will continue to grow, but the constant generation of new ideas, all backed by venture capital, will drive an ever-changing tech landscape. Technology will remain a moving target, and hyper-focused high school courses may be obsolete by the time today’s students are out looking for work.
Jobs in quickly evolving industries will require familiarity with technology combined with expertise in more generalizable skills like communication, creativity, and problem-solving. In fact, entirely new roles and job titles emerge all the time that upend professions and disrupt industries that have been standard for decades—making these roles, in educational parlance, “cross-curricular.”
Consider, for example, well-known companies like Airbnb, which fuses technology and hospitality but depends upon the interplay among professionals from seemingly disparate industries, as evidenced by some of the company’s acquisitions (a company that makes breathalyzers, another that offered a selfie product, and yet another that generated background checks). Or think about the lesser known SketchyMedical, which leverages the powerful combination of creativity and animation to further medical education and training and counts students, doctors, educators, and artists among its employees.
Growing companies are looking for employees who have the skills to think outside of the proverbial box. But our schools, and our tech courses in particular, don’t think in these cross-curricular terms, and thus don’t prepare students adequately for the fluidity, creativity, and “outside the box” thinking that are core to today’s best jobs.
Setting the Stage
Any overhaul of our technology instruction needs to start with students’ passions and interests and then infuse technology content that fits. At the Alexander Dawson School, where I teach, when we tackled changing our technology offerings, our students’ curiosity was our guiding star.
Start with a dialogue: Talk to students about their passions, interests, hobbies, and aspirations, and think of those conversations as the data that informs new, unique programs and curricula. Think of students as your partners in the creation process rather than as passive end-users.
View technology as a binding agent for diverse curricula: Technology instruction shouldn’t be isolated. Our esports curriculum is rooted in an understanding that our students’ passion for gaming could operate as a gateway to STEM, so esports functions as an umbrella under which graphic design, audio-visual creation, event management, intellectual property law, writing, and shoutcasting work in tandem and prompt students to collaborate.
Think of learning as non-linear: Learning should be like a tree rather than a single narrow path leading to one place. Some branches end abruptly, while others split again and again. Students should be able to climb along any branch that attracts them. If they start with coding, for example, and find that they’re interested in the history of coding or big data science, let them go there. Students should be stimulated by an endless supply of branches. Give them time and autonomy to engage their curiosity and explore.
3 Ways to Organize Your Tech Courses
Once you’ve thought through the student-centered principles of good technology instruction, you can move on to organizing your curricula. Here are three good places to start.
Create capstone programs with an emphasis on technology: In capstone programs with an open-ended structure, students can pursue their passions and interests while bringing in other learning experiences they have had. At the Alexander Dawson School, students can undertake a semester-long course of study where they can solve global problems, launch DEO (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives, and create new products. These loosely structured opportunities allow students to break down traditional subjects and apply various skills as needed, and offer them room to use the technical and soft skills they need to be future innovators. Capstone projects also help teachers become facilitators and learners who grow alongside their students.
Create technology electives: When they are purposeful and multifaceted, technology electives can flip the script to teach students what goes into running a successful company. For example, electives in marketing, business management, sales, and coding can introduce students to the range of technology, creative, and strategic skills that are essential to any successful company.
Partner with businesses that offer authentic workplace experiences: The old “show, don’t tell” mantra matters. When you show students how a tech role functions within a real company, they can better see what is possible. Schools should find partners that can lead their students toward professions that are fused with their passions. These days, there are plenty of internship opportunities that can be conducted remotely, too. Help your students look for internships where they will be exposed to teams with diverse experts and where they will be given autonomy to create and explore ideas.
Students should emerge from their educational experiences with one essential skill: the ability to look at all of their learning experiences from a 30,000 foot perspective. As a whole, our education system should cultivate students who can take lessons from one branch, contextualize them with personal experience, and then brainstorm ways in which they apply the lessons in yet another context. When a student can apply learning experiences of any kind in a fluid, nimble manner, they are prepared for success in a world of work that becomes more complex every day.