Are we doing enough to prepare our students for higher education and the world of work?

With education systems across the globe increasingly focused on academic excellence, there remains a number of invaluable skills and attributes that are currently being neglected from the classroom. It is this educator’s view that it is the duty of the classroom teacher, particularly during the formative Secondary school years, to prepare his or her students, not only for the exams that will take place for the duration of a month at the end of their final school year, but also for the crucial competencies that will be required of them as they move onto higher education and employment.




It is entirely conceivable that a student with an excellent understanding of subject content while at school, could achieve exceptional grades in all of their exams; and yet be completely inept when confronted with the starkly different demands of university and the workplace. The potential for this situation to arise stems from the fact that many of the skills prized by employers are not essential components of any core subject curriculum. According to the group Applied Education Systems, “Employers considering new college graduates for job openings are looking for leaders who can work as part of a team and communicate effectively.” And yet, no Maths or English exam in the world values teamwork as highly as potential employers do. These are not the only treasured characteristics, of course, as a study by NACE makes apparent. The study asserts that the top 5 most sought-after skills when applying for a job (in order of value) are as follows:

1. Leadership
2. Ability to work as a team
3. Written communication
4. Problem-solving skills
5. Strong work ethic
The position of “Leadership” in the number 1 spot is striking, as the explicit development of this particular quality in most curricula is almost non-existent. Other notable attributes, which are considered of value to employers, include: initiative; computer skills; organisational ability; and strategic planning skills. A reader may argue that these skills develop naturally as a student matures through his or her time at school; yet the same could be said for a student’s language development, and it would be preposterous to leave that to chance. The skills and attributes presented here are as relevant and important in the fast-growing economies of the Gulf region, as they are anywhere else in the world. If the Gulf economies are to continue their rapid industrial growth, it is imperative that our students in the Middle East are fully equipped to contribute to these economies when the time comes.

According to Hager and Holland, the need for these “generic attributes” (as they term them) does not solely lie within the workplace: “At the same time as business and employers are calling for more emphasis on generic attributes, so too are (higher) educational providers.” In addition to the attributes already mentioned in this piece, success at university also depends on a student embracing a commitment to independent learning, and displaying the ability to conduct research on material which is not readily available. These, too, are skills currently undeveloped at school level. During their school years, our students must be taught the skills that will allow them to continue learning long after their final exams. They must be taught the skills that will enable them to continue learning effectively throughout their journeys into higher education. And they must be taught the skills that will empower them to be successful lifelong learners for the duration of their careers. As Gerber puts it, “learning is a lifelong process that should be embraced by all workers.” In this way, equipping students from an early age with the essential tools for anyone taking on higher education, will further develop the skills necessary to succeed in later life.
If we, as educators, do not make a conscious effort to prepare our students to learn, work and lead effectively into adulthood, then we have lost sight of the reasons many of us entered the teaching profession in the first place. Poole and Zahn highlight the importance of the teacher’s role in fulfilling this duty, as they claim, in no uncertain terms, that educators must take “an enthusiastic, aggressive role in adding employability-skills instruction” to their practice. The qualities highlighted here are not new, or controversial, and yet they remain drastically underdeveloped in the classroom. Samuel Halperin underlines this assertion in his discovery that the majority of students leave secondary education without the independence and employability skills necessary to succeed in higher education, and subsequently, in their careers. Similarly, Luft and Scheon put forward the point that “non-technical employment competencies are not receiving enough attention in the classroom”.

A possible explanation for this worrying state of affairs is offered by Christine Overtoom: “The most controversial misconception (is that teaching to improve employability skills) appears to conflict with rigorous academic work.” Teachers are reluctant to spend lesson time developing the skills outlined above, regardless of their value to a student’s future success, if they at the expense of the academic objectives set out by their curriculum standards. Perhaps a valid reason for this concern is that the nature of teaching in the modern era necessitates a focus on grades and school inspections. For better or worse, this isn’t likely to change any time soon. Fortunately, however, there is nothing to suggest that maintaining a cognisant commitment to teaching the skills discussed here is at odds with complying with the grades driven priorities we all face. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that inspecting bodies will actively look more favourably on schools, departments, and teachers who are able to actively develop these skills successfully. To use the Dubai system of inspection as an example, the DSIB inspection supplement of the KHDA framework details the ways in which schools will be judged on how effectively they promote learning skills amongst their students: “1) Students should demonstrate that they are innovative (creative, confident, independent) in their learning in different subjects and across the school. 2) Learning technologies should enrich, stimulate and promote students’ capacities to be innovative. 3) Critical thinking and problem-solving skills should be embedded and promote learning and enterprise.” Many of the skills that the DSIB set out here directly correlate with the employability skills that are held in such high regard by the NACE study mentioned previously (problem-solving skills, initiative, computer skills, strategic planning skills, etc.). Additionally, some of these other “generic attributes” feed in to the framework less directly, yet just as powerfully (leadership and teamwork proving a student’s confidence and ability to be innovative, for example). The impact that teaching employability skills has on a class’ exam results is less certain, and is certainly an area that would benefit from further research. Nevertheless, with critical and evaluative thinking firmly entrenched as higher-order thinking skills, prized by examiners in a range of academic subjects, it is reasonable to suggest that a task that encourages teamwork, communication, leadership, initiative and strategic planning is a viable method of ensuring that these higher-order skills are being developed. To illustrate this point, we can use the most important of all of the employability skills: leadership. A student may not be directly assessed on their leadership ability as part of an examination; but they will be required to evaluate and think critically, and encouraging students to take on leadership roles when tackling tasks can be used as a potent tool in achieving this. Employability skills can be embedded in our practice, without being seen as an obstacle to academic excellence, and without being dismissed as ‘just another thing to think about’.

But what are the best ways of doing this? Structured group tasks are clearly a method of developing teamwork, although these must be approached carefully if they are to work effectively, as there are certain pitfalls to be avoided. All teachers will be just as familiar with the student who prefers to take a passive back-seat during group activities, as they will be with the student who naturally takes control and takes on a disproportionately large amount of the workload. Teamwork must be encouraged in all students, and assigning clear roles within the team can be a useful way in ensuring everyone plays a proactive part. Moreover, by making one student accountable for the output of the team, and giving them domain over how the group tackles the task, they can slowly but surely become accustomed to the joys and challenges of leadership. These skills will, of course, not be developed overnight, and will require an ongoing commitment to guarantee that all students are able to experience teamwork and leadership a number of times, in a range of contexts. They will also require a significant degree of teacher monitoring and facilitating, at least early on the process, so that the students develop these skills in the right way. The choice of task is just as influential as how it operates. Broad and open tasks, which require strategic planning and active research, will inevitably enable students to work on the skills which are most valued in higher education and employment. This is especially true if the students are asked to justify their findings, outcomes, and approaches through written and verbal communication. If these tasks are regularly used as a method of consolidating and enhancing the students’ understanding and application of curriculum content, then teachers can remain conscious of the grades-based nature of our education systems, while dynamically investing in the ability of our students to learn, work, and lead in the economies of the future.

Crucially, the attributes developed through this kind of instruction will be just as relevant for the careers of tomorrow as they are today. When carrying out a study for the Centre for Global Education, Asia Society, Dr Tony Wagner, the co-director of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group, sets out seven employable skills that will be highly sought-after in the future. Without going into too much detail of the study in this space, one of the most striking aspects of the findings is how closely these future attributes mirror the skills that employers and universities are currently seeking. The workplace that our students will face will be fast-moving, and will inevitably present new challenges, however the leadership, teamwork, communication, strategic, and problem-solving skills that teachers can develop in the classroom today will be timeless.

A final point that it would remiss to neglect when considering how best to prepare our students for their futures, is that of ethics. As the economist E.F. Schumacher eloquently lays out in his influential book, “Small is Beautiful”, if teachers do not pay attention to how their students develop a sense of ethical purpose and obligation, then we are doing a disservice to the societies of tomorrow. Our students will grow to become leaders in both the public and private sectors of the Gulf States, and the wider world, and we must be determined to ensure they develop the prerequisite skills to get them there, with strong ethical foundations.
If we are to truly fulfil our responsibility as educators at every level of the education system, then we must do everything in our power to make sure our students are ready and prepared to succeed in the next stage of their education, and their careers, with firm values and essential attributes, as well as the necessary academic standards. Our job is not only to ensure that our students succeed in their final exams (although I’m not for a moment dismissing the importance of this); our job is to give them the tools to succeed long into adulthood. In short, our job is to properly equip our students to be lifelong learners, lifelong workers, and lifelong leaders.

Tom Bruccoleri
Subject Leader – Mathematics
Hartland International School

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