Every educator has repeatedly heard this question (or a variation thereof) uttered by one of their students: “Will I ever use this in the real world?” It is posed in reaction to every conceivable course of study and every conceivable assignment. And it is not totally without merit, because not every shred of information has lasting implications.

At the same time, the educational process should. 

We as educators should be constantly evaluating and re-evaluating how we engage our students – how and what we are teaching them and whether we are preparing them for the world at large and especially the working world, which is evolving ever more rapidly and increasing in complexity. 

As things stand, it appears that too often we are gearing our approach toward standardized tests – toward enabling students to regurgitate facts, which are quickly flushed in the tests’ aftermath.

Understand that these tests exist largely as a result of “No Child Left Behind,” a piece of legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002. Its goal was to ensure that every child, no matter his or her background, received a quality education.

While that is certainly a worthwhile aim, the larger mission should be to ensure long-term success – that no adult is left behind, either.

Sadly, there are no guarantees of that. A 2019 study undertaken by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit philanthropic organization, showed that 84 percent of high school students believe they’re prepared for college, but only six in 10 believe they have the necessary skills to enter the workforce. Among adults, the breakdown is no less dramatic: 66 percent believe high school graduates are “college-ready,” but only 42 percent believe they are “career-ready.”

Further, the study showed that 26 percent of high school students believe the job they will hold two decades from now doesn’t yet exist, and 18 percent of adults believe their positions will be phased out within 20 years.

Aaron North, the vice president of education at the Kauffman Foundation, told Education Week that students have grown up “in an age of really accelerated tech evolution.”

“It is a world of creation,” he added. “It is a world of change.”

As a result, it is incumbent upon educators to adapt. Sandra Love, Director of Education Insight and Research for Mentoring Minds, a company that provides critical-thinking materials to K-12 students, wrote in 2021 that educators should foster four critical competencies in their students. She labeled them “the four C’s,” and not surprisingly listed critical thinking first, as that enables an individual to sift through all manner of information in order to determine the best course of action.

She also included creativity, collaboration and communication. It stands to reason that the first of those is essential, given that change is, as mentioned, a constant nowadays. Stepping back and looking at things through a different lens, in an attempt to find an alternative others might not have considered, is invaluable.

To emphasize this point, Love highlighted a passage written by Daniel Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future”: “We may not all be Dali or Degas. But today we must all be designers.”

Collaboration is likewise critical, especially at a time where so much is accomplished online and remote work has become commonplace. Collaboration enables someone to pick the brains of those in an ever-widening circle – to consider viewpoints that might not have been considered otherwise. It results in teamwork, in the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

And finally, there’s communication – managing the various channels available to all of us, understanding what information is important and what is not and building meaningful relationships. Love cites the book “The New Division of Labor,” by economists Frank Levy and Richard Mundane, in which the authors offer the opinion that the most meaningful jobs of the future will require not only higher-level thinking skills but also complex communication skills.

So what does that mean for educators? It means establishing the basics of reading, writing, math and science at the elementary level, then building upon that foundation. Providing certain life skills in middle school. Helping students understand the value of managing one’s finances in high school. Continually honing their tech skills, including keyboard navigation and word processing, two that are too often neglected.

Also to be kept in mind is that not every student is college material. Trade school should never be dismissed as an option. And finally, it behooves educators to encourage community service, to make students understand that there is a world beyond themselves and their smartphones.

Obviously it’s a huge to-do list. But the world is becoming more and more complex, and students need to have the tools that enable them to succeed within it. Educators, understanding that standardized tests only have so much value, must endeavor to provide those tools, as best they can.