Karen Quinn has to wonder how it’s even possible.

She has been hearing on the news that technicians are close to perfecting driverless vehicles that are safer on the road than humans.

“What does this mean for the future of workers?” asked Quinn, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carlisle Area School District.

The media has made it clear truck driver jobs all across the country may be in jeopardy if the technology takes hold and proves itself to be cost- effective.

So where does that leave the high school senior with ambitions to earn a commercial driver’s license? Should he or she consider a detour down another career path?

Unraveling uncertainty

Truth is, it’s anyone guess and times are uncertain. Driverless vehicles were not even part of everyday conversation five years ago. Yet the technology is drawing closer to practical use.

The current kindergarten class graduates in 2031, more than 13 years from now. While these children are growing up tech savvy, no one really knows how developments may shape the skills needed for employment that far into the 21st century.

“We don’t know what the jobs are going to be,” Quinn said. “The next generation of school administrators is going to be preparing students for a future we can’t even imagine.”

Uncertainty combined with the rise of automation is prompting educators to rethink their instructional strategies and move away from traditional old school methods.

The result has been the emergence of what is being called personalized or blended learning along with the teaching of the four C’s: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.

Flexibility

The thinking behind both is to teach students how to be adaptable lifelong learners in a future job market where they may have to switch careers multiple times.

By being flexible and learning the four C’s, students could fit into a number of different skill sets, said Richard Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District. He said that, along the way, students discover for themselves the kind of learners they are so that they could better direct their own education in the future.

“We want our students to be able to adjust instead of just training for one career or one field,” said Michelle Barrett, director of the Center for Careers and Technology at Carlisle High School. “They need troubleshooting skills. They need to think outside the box. They need to be innovative.”

Present-day students coming up through the system have an advantage over prior generations. They are used to the near-constant flux of new technology. Many older workers are so accustomed to the same job or career path that they are less likely to be flexible enough to change. Yet change is the order of the day.

“You have to make yourself a valuable employee,” Barrett said. “You have to have value to them [employers] so that they want to keep you, train you and invest in you.”

The push

To embrace the four C’s takes practice. While it can be said that creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communications has always been a part of education, this push by educators is a fairly recent trend.

Robyn Eucker is director of curriculum and instruction for the Big Spring School District. She traces the origin of this emphasis on the four C’s to 2002 when the Partnership for 21st Century Learning was formed.

The partnership was one of the first organizations to bring together educators, policy makers and the business community to advocate for a stronger emphasis on the four C’s in public schools, Euker said. She said Big Spring is a member school district of the Ed Leader networking group where educators share resources and tools in support of teaching the four C’s.

Barrett believes this greater emphasis is due in part to the large number of baby boomers who will soon be leaving the workforce for retirement. Their departure could leave a void partially filled by automation, but also by younger workers trained to be adaptable.

“Some are better at the four C’s than others,” Barrett said of current students. “Some will have strengths. It’s not something they just pick up, but if they practice it throughout their years in school and are given opportunities to hone those skills, they are much more able to use them when they leave school.”

The four C’s are important because they differentiate human intelligence from artificial intelligence. The unpredictable nature of higher-order thinking and personal interactions will make it harder for certain jobs to be replaced by automation.

Now it’s personal

Even with automation, there are opportunities for workers who prepare. Quinn used the example of driverless vehicles and the many what-if scenarios that come to mind.

“What happens if the GPS goes out?” she asked. “How does the merchandise get out of the vehicle? Does this mean that more people will need the skill to program those vehicles and understand how those vehicles work?”

One key to adaptability is to know when to adapt, to be engaged enough to anticipate a change and to prepare for it through retraining. Personalized or blended learning provides a pathway for students to learn how to self-direct or customize their own education to keep them engaged.

In Big Spring School District, this approach takes the form of a “passion project” or a “genius hour” in the elementary schools, Euker said. Students are encouraged to pursue research into a topic of interest to them and to ask questions as they seek out answers.

“One student was learning about braille as a language,” said Euker referring to a recent classroom visit. Another wanted to learn what skills were necessary to be a successful pitcher on a softball team.

The idea was to get them interested in the process of learning so that they can practice skills in a safe environment. The goal is to build up enough confidence to transfer those skills to adulthood.

Starting with the Class of 2019, Big Spring High School students will be able to graduate with a “personalized” diploma, Euker said. This will be a departure from the traditional four credits of English, four credits of math, three credits of social studies and three credits of science required of previous Big Spring graduates.

Instead, those graduating with a “personalized” diploma must earn credits in core classes during their freshman and sophomore years — two credits each in English, math, social studies and science. The balance of their credits could be earned their junior and senior years by taking a variety of electives that customize their diploma but show specific competency in such areas as digital learning and research writing projects, Euker said.

While personalized or blended learning may be appropriate for older students, educators are grappling with the question of what grade to introduce the concept.

There are so many foundational skills students need to learn in the first three to four years of school, Quinn said. She said there are studies that show that if students don’t grasp those basic literacy and math skills, they could struggle with that deficiency the rest of their school career. There is also the issue of pure numbers.

Carlisle Area School District enrolls 5,200 students, each of whom has to come out with a skills set that conforms to academic standards. “We have standards, but how do we meet those standards within a personalized approach?” Quinn asked.

Personalized or blended learning is such a new concept in public education, there has yet to be any definitive research outlining a proven approach, Quinn said. “I don’t think we have a good understanding of what it really looks like in a classroom.”

Still there is value in helping students to discover what they want to learn and how they can demonstrate their learning to educators.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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