Beyond the Skills Gap Revisited

I wrote a couple of months ago about reading the book Beyond the Skills Gap with my small book club. We just getting ready to meet to talk about the last four chapters of the book and to wrap up our discussion of it. Because I had read it back in January, I needed to refresh my memory about what those last chapters are about and so I reread them yesterday. There are a couple of ideas in the book that I didn’t write about before but that resonate with me differently now at the end of the academic year than they did at the start of the year and in the middle of the year.

The first thing that strikes me is that the book focuses on what the authors call “habits of mind.” These are skills, knowledge, and dispositions that are desired by potential employers and that will help students navigate a constantly-changing employment landscape. The book provides several lists of these habits of mind from several different sources. In the conclusion, the authors say, “These competencies can be summed up as a combination of a strong work ethic; rigorous technical training; the ability to solve complex technical problems and interpersonal dilemmas, engage in teamwork, and communicate effectively; and the ability and desire to continually learn (p. 198).” I’m working with the newly constituted General Education Outcomes Task Force this summer to determine which habits of mind we would like to focus on at PSU in our General Education program. We hope that the University will adopt a set of habits of mind for the entire University so that academic and non-academic departments are aligned in what we are trying to cultivate in our students. Although we have a ways to go with this work, the conversations have started.

The book also focuses on the fact that the employment landscape is constantly changing. We should not, therefore, be short-sighted in how we design our curriculum. We want to help our students develop a foundation for their long-term career rather than just giving them skills and knowledge for their first job. The authors say, “We should be educating all students with an eye toward the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of the labor market, not just for today, or even tomorrow, but for the middle of the century (p. 179).” We don’t know what skills, knowledge, and dispositions students will need to get the jobs of the future that we can’t even imagine. So we want to provide curriculum for students that support their life-long learning and adaptability. The book provides a number of examples of how other institutions are helping students develop their adaptability.

One of the ways that the book suggests we can design curriculum that supports our students in developing the habits of mind listed above is to envision a kind of cognitive apprenticeship in which “contextualized learning is overseen by experts who gradually ‘fade out’ their mentoring over time as learners acquire more and more experience (p. 8).” Contextualized learning involves providing experiences that focus on real world issues in real world environments. PSU is already beginning to work on contextualizing learning by focusing the First Year Seminar on wicked problems and project-based learning. The book gives numerous examples of how we might ensure that students are learning content in a real world context. For example, we might create an advisory board of potential employers to engage in discussions about the kinds of work that might be valuable for students to experience in the classroom. I like to think of the context of the learning be about touching the outside world in some way. And a variety of external partner relationships might help us to think about the ways in which students work can touch the outside world. In any case, the idea of a cognitive apprenticeship requires us to think about students’ cognitive development over the course of their college career and how we might provide experiences in which students are given increasing control as they mature.

The final thing that resonates strongly with me is the book’s focus on the need to provide significant professional development for faculty members to be able design curriculum and experiences that will allow students to develop the desired habits of mind. We can’t just tell faculty to overhaul what they’re doing and how they’re doing it without providing supports for such changes. In addition, the book points out that the responsibility for developing these habits of mind cannot rest solely in the hands of faculty members. For example, work ethic is developed in a familial and peer context as much as (if not more than) in a classroom setting. Parents, peers, administrators, and others have a significant impact on the ways in which we view work. The University can create an environment that nurtures, values, and rewards a strong work ethic but the support of others in the lives of our students will have a significant impact on the level to which we are successful in that effort.

Now that my book club is finishing this book, we are moving on to the next. The most likely choice is The Undergraduate Experience. As I’ve written before, I think the most important part of the cluster initiative is a renewed focus on the experience of our students and a quick glance at the table of contents of this book makes me think we can learn a lot from it.

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