How K-12 Teachers Prepare Students for Skills of the Future

As in-demand workforce skills evolve, how do elementary school teachers stay abreast of what to teach?
Teachers skills

Complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity will be the top skills employers expect of workers in 2020, according to the “Future of Jobs” report from World Economic Forum. However, much of K-12 education in the United States focuses on basic reading, writing and mathematics, aiming to help students pass required statewide exams.

“In that system of education, time is constant because teachers have to cover all of this material by the end of the year, but the learning itself is variable because not all kids are learning all of that content,” said Natalie Abel, strategic partnerships director at International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, a nonprofit organization that advocates for competency-based, blended and online learning models based in Vienna, Virginia. “You’re passing kids along with these huge gaps in learning, and they’re missing really critical, foundational skills that are holding them back from being successful in life.”

Without knowing what jobs will look like in the future, and while still teaching basic skills necessary for literacy and success, how do teachers prepare students for the future?

The “sage on a stage” model of teaching is evolving to a more personalized system for students, in which teachers facilitate the learning process of individual students who take a more active role in their learning through projects. Abel said this results in greater engagement of students, who begin to find their career paths at early ages. “They’re really experiencing learning rather than just sitting in a classroom all day.”

But, who teaches the teachers how to adapt to new methods, while keeping up with new tools available?

Most states require an update to teacher licensure every few years. They must complete a certain number of hours of additional learning, which varies by state, said Kristen Amundson, president and CEO of National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE, a nonprofit that represents U.S. boards of education based in Alexandria, Virginia. These hours can be through local universities, summer classes, speakers, leactures and professional development days. Schools and districts provide most professional learning, with teachers taking courses on their own, Amundson said.

One area in which teachers need improvement is interpretation, management and manipulation of data, Amundson said. When students work online, teachers receive data about student performance, which can then inform teachers of potential follow-up instruction. Most teachers today lack this information in their original licensure training, so instruction around data is a tremendous need today, she said.

Another important area is around management of technology, said iNACOL’s Abel. Data falls under this category, but so does managing absenteeism, which she said is a huge issue with online tools, especially when teachers and students lack face-to-face contact.

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Assessment literacy is a skill other countries excel at better than the U.S., Abel said, citing New Zealand as a country that does this well. Schools there provide teachers time to work together to see how they grade assessments, thus creating greater reliability and validity in the tests they provide. The U.S. school system fails to provide teachers with adequate time to do this. “There’s just not time embedded for teachers to learn,” Abel said.

What role do business leaders play in this?

While business leaders might be engrossed in the day-to-day of running their business, they should also turn attention to their future talent pipeline. Business leaders should partner with local schools to share what the business community needs locally and define student success, Abel said. For example, the tourism-focused community in Miami will need a much different talent pool than fishing-dominated Maine. “Education really should be a local conversation,” she said.

NASBE’s Amundson echoed these sentiments, adding that business leaders should share the general skills they seek for their future employees. Schools shouldn’t cater to specific roles at certain companies, but they should consider broader areas of need, such as workers who will show up on time, she said.

Business leaders can go through business advisory committees that many schools have, or they can act through chambers of commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business.

If teachers don’t stay ahead of business needs and sharpen their own skills to teach students, then graduates will continue to lack skills needed for jobs, thus contributing to a sense of alienation that is unhealthy for democracy, Amundson said. Staying ahead of changes to business needs then helps all areas of the talent pool, from school to employment.

“Ideally, you end up with students leaving school who are better able to get the kinds of jobs that will create a stronger economy that will in turn lead to strengthening the schools, and it becomes a virtuous cycle,” Amundson said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email