“When am I ever going to use this?”
The classic question that drives teachers crazy. This is a fair question. While it might come with a tone of rebellion, it’s more of an inquiry stemming from curiosity; and because of the way education has been structured, many teachers may not have a practical answer. Those of us involved in career technical education (CTE), however, believe we can give our students the answers they’re looking for.
Start with the Why
Start with the why for today, not the why for 10 or 20 years from now. How does a subject, a chapter, a skill and way of thinking enrich and improve our students’ lives today? This connection should be made early because it taps into fundamental learning theories and human psychology.
Asking students to learn information or a skill for a far distant future is a challenging request once you understand human tendencies. In general, being future oriented and having future oriented behaviors like long-term investing and delayed gratification are not instinctual. We come from biological lineages where champion behaviors are those that helped us survive immediately because the future was not a given. So part of being future oriented has to involve behavioral conditioning. Ironically, building long-term behaviors call for spurts of immediate gratification. And one of those for students is understanding why. The answer to the question, “When am I going to use this?” must be tailored for today - not 10 years from today. We need to give a direct application that allows students to experience the importance of these skills in order to build habits of learning and habits of doing.
This is where CTE offers a unique opportunity for our educational system; allowing students to explore careers through application and helping them explore and develop their metacognitive skills -- their emotional intelligence (EI). Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults develop EI: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Global Awareness, Ethical Decision-Making Skills, Relationship Skills, and Self-Management Skills (see Figure 1). The behaviors that result from developing emotional competencies (things like saying “please” and “thank you,” understanding other people’s body language, effective listening, or arriving on time) are used daily at school, at work, and at home. Figure 1.
Social Emotional Learning (Emotional Intelligence) Diagram
EQ vs IQ is the wrong mentality
There’s a battle in conventional wisdom of Education. What is more important for our children to learn, traditional academics, measured by our Intelligence Quotient (IQ) or social-emotional competencies, measured by our Emotional Quotient (EQ)? Thinking it’s an either-or answer could lead us down the wrong path. Rather, we need to think of it as a blend of both EQ and IQ--one should not take precedence over the other. Bloom’s Taxonomy dictates that once we have our academic foundation, it will then pave the way for a more creative and innovative mind. This will enable us to develop a more well-rounded student body with the ability to address complex problems.
The path forward is one where we are infusing SEL into all lesson topics in all grades for all students. This is not an easy task as traditionally SEL has lived in K-6 for behavioral interventions. However, it can be done. Take a secondary history lesson, for example. After a lesson on the U.S. women’s rights movement in the 1960s, a skilled facilitator would divide the room in half. One side would identify as anti-feminists, and argue that women and men are inherently different and women did not need to agitate for further rights, but instead focus on the family and home. The other side would take on the mantle of liberal feminists and conversely argue that women should be granted the same protections and rights under the law as men. The facilitator would tell the students to try and empathize with each position, whether they agreed with it or not. Empathizing with each group would not only help them better understand each position, but help students comprehend why each respective side takes that position. It is precisely this balance we are seeking to implement into our educational system.
Take another example, in a CTE auto shop unit that explores the disassembly and reassembly of a truck engine, a teacher can ask students to explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, thereby developing systems thinking skills. This strategy is not only easier on our teachers, but helps our learners see daily application.
Workforce challenges are now school place challenges
Education’s heightened focus on EQ through SEL is born out of the stresses seen in today’s students but addressing social and emotional competencies has been a focus in Industry since the invention of the corporate Human Resources function in the late 19th century. Human Resources, born out of the industrial revolution, was intended to protect humans as we integrated into a system of industry. The through-line for all four of our industrial revolutions has been to increase productivity. The first industrial revolution harnessed the steam power, the second added factory processes, the third digitized information, and today, the fourth industrial revolution uses automation to increase our production efficiency. All the while, our Human Resource professionals are addressing (and mostly reacting to) the challenges of our highly innovative and rapidly changing industrial systems, making it one of the fastest growing fields in the nation.
Our local chapter, the Fresno Workforce Development Board, conducted a study a few months ago. They surveyed hundreds of organizations the question, “What are some of the challenges facing your company today ?” The results, which are not uncommon with businesses across the nation, were Communication, Professionalism, Leadership, Accepting Feedback, and Taking Initiative. Share these topics of concern with most middle and high school teachers and there is an unfortunate continuity. Notice how few of these skills are technical. In the age of technology, human skills are valued by employers more than ever. These are the skills our students have to walk away with and will help them beyond their careers. These human skills are far more important than any certificate or passing any assessment.
The future starts with creating a common language
Automation is nothing new. Humans like to innovate. Our constant drive to innovate has been disrupting career fields since the industrial age. But automation continues to push and redefine the career market. How do we prepare students for this changing future?
The answer is in our humanity. Being human is a unique trait. It is impossible to automate being human. In fact, in a changing marketplace, human skills are what matter the most. By focusing on developing those traits that keep us human: empathy, critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, and curiosity, we are able to “future-proof” our learners and give them the best opportunity for success in today's world.
The current challenge that industry and education leaders face today is finding the right balance between infusing EQ into our current IQ based curriculum. There is a huge opportunity to create a common language. It takes buy-in from both industry and education to design and agree upon how communities talk about social and emotional competencies, a feat that, like the railroad, can increase our efficiency, but more importantly will produce better humans who have the skills to be successful today and prepared for tomorrow.
About the authors
Edgar wants to live in a world filled with happy and fulfilled humans, where everyone finds value in their experience of life through play, work and meaningful human interactions. In this world, karaoke happens more days than not and there is always room for another friend to talk about positive systemic change. As a gregarious shenanigator with more than 20 years of experience in workforce and human development, he’s worked with a multitude of school districts and workforce agencies to explore and improve the way we approach our lives through his emotional intelligence curricula and training company, IMAGO. When he’s not inspiring change one young mind at a time or running innovative workshops around the nation, you can find him running around barefoot with his family and encouraging his team of change agents toward IMAGO’s vision for a happier, more emotionally intelligent world.
Dr. Brett Taylor is committed to innovating the educational system at all levels. He was the founding principal of the Phillip J. Patino School of Entrepreneurship and the designer of the Educational Entrepreneurship Masters and Doctoral concentrations at the University of the Pacific. He founded NewSchool Innovation Consulting to help educational organizations design unique programs. He coordinates his work with like-minded consultants and contractors to give educational organizations the best team possible to facilitate innovative change.