How Will Next-Gen Workers Learn? Look to Preschool

What skills are preschoolers learning now that could change the working world?
preschool education

Preschool in the United States aims to provide children with the basic skills necessary for entering school life — counting, the alphabet, grasping basic social skills, to name a few. But some students nowadays are learning even more. Here we explore how early childhood education may influence the workforce of the distance future.

Coding and Crayons

Some preschools have technology literacy programs that teach computer coding, an increasingly important skill in an ever-growing technology-focused world. But is coding at 4 years old too early? “I think the idea of having preschoolers learn coding is pretty crazy,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research institution in Washington, D.C., adding that the skills should be learned at an older age.

However, teaching children to code early on lends them more time to build on that basic education, potentially creating a generation that contains more highly educated computer scientists than we have now. And early coding programs use elementary tools such as blocks and drawing to teach coding. “Instead of drawing with a crayon, [students are] drawing with code,” said Ajay Kapur, president and CEO of Kadenze Inc., an online learning platform for creative arts education based in Valencia, California. This visual output for coding needs to have a creative aspect and be aesthetically pleasing to keep young ones interested, he said.

Creativity in STEM

That creative component to a technical skill is part of another new trend in early childhood education. STEAM, which incorporates creative arts within the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, leads to opportunities for students to apply their hard science lessons in creative ways, according to Ryan Coon, a program officer for The Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that supports a network of educators and innovators called Remake Learning.

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Coon said he hopes that business leaders embrace this. “[STEAM] should reveal that there are opportunities for creativity and expression in all sorts of fields.” For example, successful engineers need to be creative problem solvers to apply their technical expertise in new ways.

Back to the Basics

Even more basic than the social skills that most preschoolers acquire are life skills, such as how to cook and garden, said Alexandra Whittington, adjunct professor at the University of Houston’s College of Technology, futurist and contributing author to the book “The Future of Business.” These students are learning about the food chain and environmental issues such as food and water shortages, as well as sustainability. “I think that these sort of basic survival skills that some preschools are focusing on are very, very cool and really needed,” she said.

These skills could lead to a generation that feels more self-sufficient and apt to job-hop, Whittington said. This, compounded with the rise of the gig economy, means major workforce changes that require companies to pay attention. Business leaders often prefer a contingent workforce so the organization saves money on benefits offerings, but this leads to economic uncertainty for the gig workers who don’t have a steady paycheck or employer-provided health care, she said.

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While looking to preschool education as a barometer of future workforce trends isn’t likely to be entirely accurate, it is something leaders should look to as they observe how future generations learn and work together. “If there is no communication between business leaders and education leaders, we risk failing to prepare today’s students for the best careers available,” The Sprout Fund’s Coon said. And without embracing the newest generation of workers, companies lose out on the latest skills that can benefit their businesses.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.

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