How Do We Prepare Students for Jobs that Don’t Exist Yet?

With so many drastic changes permeating the global economic landscape, it’s easy for educators to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task entrusted to them — preparing young, developing minds to excel in fields that are yet to be imagined. That said, placing too strong of an emphasis on a distant tomorrow runs the risk of depriving students from the potential found today.

After all, there isn’t some secret hack capable of transforming students into revolutionary scientists and entrepreneurs. Much like the evolution of technology itself, it requires steady, practical improvements; laying the groundwork for lifelong learning, not teachers with other-worldly clairvoyance. In this piece, we’ll explore four of the most crucial elements to success in the 21st Century.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking image

Image via Flickr by David Legg

In the endless pursuit to churn out high standardized test scores, educators are often forced to neglect cornerstones of academic and professional success. Undoubtedly, critical thinking is one of these. Which is unfortunate, as today’s students are constantly besieged by tidal waves of information — much of it lacking credibility. From the sensational reporting of cable news channels to the biased ramblings of influential social media accounts, separating good information from bad has become a rather daunting task.

Indeed, marketers have made fortunes by exploiting the tendency of people to blindly trust what they read. However, critical thinking extends far beyond simply analyzing information and locating flaws — it also encompasses the ability to ask the right questions. Regardless of the field or job title, most occupations will demand individuals not only find problems, but also actively think up solutions. Not surprisingly, this type of higher level thinking doesn’t result from teaching students how to correctly parrot information.

Curriculum Advice

While most educators praise the merits of critical thinking, quite a few remain confused about how to effectively integrate it into their curriculum. Nonetheless, a few small changes can go a long way. Of course, essay writing is a tried-and-true method of engaging students in the critical thought process, but there are definitely more tools at your disposal.

For example, on the first day of 10th grade, my English teacher announced to the class “If you find a typo or factual error in any class material, show me, and I will award you extra credit once it’s verified.” Needless to say, I spent the entire year intently examining each sentence, scrutinizing every punctuation. Over a decade later, this habit persists and never fails to prove beneficial. If you’re on the hunt for detailed curriculum strategies, the Foundation for Critical Thinking provides excellent, in-depth resources for k-12 teachers.

Branding and Digital Citizenship

branding image

Image via Flickr by Jon Jackson

Branding is no longer solely the realm of corporations and professionals. With the infiltration of social media into every crevice of society, each of us is simultaneously establishing an audience and a brand with every digital interaction. Short of a cataclysmic disaster that pushes humanity to the brink of extinction, this trend towards self-broadcasting will only accelerate.

As anonymous screen names fade away into history, the line between real life and the web is being blurred to the point of becoming indistinguishable. Resulting from this merging of pixels and people is a tremendous need for all of us to carefully consider the digital footprints we leave behind.

Curriculum Advice

First, make students aware of the fact that they already possess a brand — that with every tweet, YouTube video and Instagram upload, they are actively building a digital legacy. Next, have them make an honest assessment of their current online presence. If they were to suddenly vanish tomorrow, would they be comfortable being remembered by what’s available on their social media accounts today?

Certainly, it would also be wise to point to the fact that a poorly managed brand can directly result in being blacklisted by employers and prestigious universities. For useful information on how to cultivate these essential 21st Century skills, our Teacher’s Guide to Digital Citizenship is a must-read.

Collaborative Skills

lego collaborative skills

Image via Flickr by Lollyman

Humans are not solitary creatures; our species did not rise to prominence by working alone and hoarding knowledge. Although group-based learning is used by educators across every k-12 subject, working with partners for a few class sessions doesn’t automatically translate into improved collaborative abilities. As any veteran teacher will attest, merely handing students a paper and expecting them to have an engaging, on-task discussion is naive at best.

Furthermore, teamwork in the modern workplace increasingly consists of cooperating with others over distances. Although most students actively use social media, that doesn’t render them experts at expressing themselves effectively. Thus, the need persists for educators to help focus these innate digital communication skills into measurable achievement.

Curriculum Advice

When assigning group work, clearly defined roles must be established. Whether it’s research, writing or speaking, each individual should feel as if they play a vital part. As with any gathering of unique personalities, agreed upon conduct rules must be set to prevent conflicts from arising. Keep in mind — cloud based platforms like Google Drive make it cheap and efficient for students to collaborate from home. As an added bonus, Drive apps provide an easy way for educators to monitor progress and provide feedback. If you find yourself confused about how to utilize this powerful medium, Leah Levy’s 5 Ways to Use Google Drive Apps for Group Work is an excellent place to start.

Adaptability and Resilience

Adaptation is the fuel of an endless evolutionary march, with necessity being the mother of all worthwhile progress. In a world as chaotic as ours, change is one of the few guarantees we have. Sometimes it’s slow and peaceful, other times rapid and extreme. No matter how it manifests, it remains unavoidable. Over the course of a student’s life, they will be subjected to countless obstacles, each one forcing them to act swiftly and harness ingenuity. When it comes to the economy they will inhabit upon graduation, adaptability will make a key difference between prosperity and mediocrity. How, then, do you go about teaching it?

Curriculum Advice

The first step to cultivating adaptation skills is to remove the stigma of failure. For instance, you could discuss examples of famous achievements that were preceded by countless disasters. By doing this, you illustrate that although greatness is the goal, there are numerous paths to its attainment; and regardless of how much you prepare, not everything will always go according to plan.

Also, be sure to emphasize that at times when everything is going wrong, clearly and honestly assessing a situation typically reveals a blueprint to success. As the famous mathematician and philosopher Descartes so eloquently conveyed, “You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made, but I just kept pushing.”

Most importantly, never forget that adaptability and creativity are two sides of the same coin — without the latter, the former becomes almost impossible. By turning your classroom into a makerspace, adaptability can be learned through trial and error as the creative powers of students emerge.


Traditional education isn’t always an accurate indicator of success. Truth be told, there will always be a percentage of college graduates that work low-paying, less-than-desirable jobs. To get a degree is one thing, but putting it to good use is another matter entirely. As an educator, all you can do is equip students with the tools to carve out their own destiny. From engineers to artists, the skills discussed above will empower students regardless of the path they choose.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Jeff Dunn and ran on October 25, 2011. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Aiden Wolfe update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.