Imagine as a high school student having the chance to not only discover your interests but turn those interests into a career. That’s what LRNG and other efforts across the country are hoping to do. And none too soon. Far too many kids get lost on the path from classroom to workplace.
Dropout rates at two- and four-year colleges, especially among low-income students, are high. Seventy percent of low-income students at four-year colleges and universities fail to graduate in six years. Obstacles abound: high tuition, insufficient financial aid, lack of guidance from adults, lack of direction, discrimination, maddening bureaucracy. It is easy to see how a student can fall through the cracks or feel like giving up.
Schools, the government, and businesses have begun working in concert to stem the dropout rate and create delineated “career pathways” based on the demands of area workforces. Colleges and employers join forces to outline the coursework and job-experience pathway, leading to higher wages for students and solid matches for employers. In Rochester, Minnesota, for example, the Mayo Clinic (the region’s biggest employer) and other medical employers helped develop a pathway for community college students based on the region’s need for health care workers. Many others have joined the school-to-work movement, including career academies and five-year high schools.
But what about students who haven’t found their calling? How do you help them discover a path that can lead to a well-paid and fulfilling career? That’s where LRNG and similar efforts can help.
Adapting the “playlists” concept we use to experience a curated selection of music, video, or other media, LRNG allows educators to construct learning playlists that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop vital competencies while exploring their interests. The learning experiences (or “XPs” in the parlance of LRNG) that make up the playlist can be face-to-face activities that happen in a local place of learning, or online digital experiences that a young person completes online. Young people progress through playlists by submitting evidence of their learning and at the completion of a Playlist, they’ll earn a digital badge to recognize their accomplishment. LRNG plans to link these badges to incentives for like access to mentors or internships with possible employers. Some playlists are being developed with help from companies like EA Games, which lend their knowledge of industry needs.
But the playlists do something more. They help young people develop the kinds of dispositions that employers are clamoring for and that can support a person in a world where what matters most is what you can do with what you know. As an executive told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “Young people who are intrinsically motivated—curious, persistent, and willing to take risks—will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.”
That kind of intrinsic motivation doesn’t come naturally to teenagers. It takes cultivating. Programs like MIT’s Little Devices Lab, where college students invent solutions to health care issues using everyday technologies, or makerspaces around the country, where teens solve problems and design solutions, are a start. Those kinds of labs allow youth to discover a passion while building a portfolio of skills that future employers will pay for.
More important, they provide a foundation for lifelong learning. In “Mass Flourishing,” Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps argues for a rebooting of jobs to foster a sense of innovation, creativity, and problem-solving at work. People, he says, have “a desire to express creativity, a relish for challenge, an enjoyment of problem solving, a delight in novelty, and the restless need to explore and tinker.” It’s time, he argues, that we seize the imagination of all participants, from day laborers to white collar workers.
But getting there will take a rediscovery of the joys of self-expression, accepting change, testing oneself against others, experimenting, summoning imagination, exercising judgment, and feeling free to act on insights.
While some of this can happen in schools or online, the risk is that only well-positioned youth will benefit, those with access to these kinds of resources at school and home. That’s why a recent World Bank report notes that adults and youth will “need to continuously reevaluate and upgrade their skills,” and “much of that will happen outside the formal education system.”
More “third spaces”—beyond home, school, and work—are needed, particularly for low-income youth in struggling schools, to ensure that all youth have an opportunity to become entrepreneurs in spirit.