Educators: Add “Adaptable Skills” to the Educational Mix; Advice From Advanced Placement Capstone Students

An education committed solely to acquiring skills and knowledge required for specific jobs — calculus, chemistry and American government, for example — has limitations. Schools that also instill adaptable skills students will need in many workplace contexts — written and oral communication, critical thinking and creativity, for example — can provide a better path to 21st-century success.

Five Fairfax County, Virginia high school juniors conveyed this message during a recent visit to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) headquarters, where they showcased their Advanced Placement Capstone™ project on how well the United States’ modern education system prepares students for post-college success.

AP Capstone is a two-year course of study developed by the College Board that complements discipline-specific advanced placement classes such as world history or macroeconomics.  The capstone classes equip students with skills increasingly valued by colleges, including an ability to conduct independent research, validate the reliability of sources and work collaboratively. About 1,100 high schools around the U.S. and abroad currently participate in AP Capstone.

The five students who presented their research on education were accompanied by 30 others from Oakton High School, along with their AP Capstone teachers, Elizabeth Snyder and Eliot Waxman. The students gave group presentations on subjects ranging from the competition between brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce, to conservation efforts to end the illegal ivory trade.

Each group selected a research topic that fired its curiosity; the group that chose education did so because “[they] all had some sort of passion” for the subject and shared “a desire to learn about education and to improve the system because it is such a major part of [their] lives,” according to junior Samantha Condro.

Three female students stand next to a projector screen in the ED library addressing an audience.

After agreeing upon an education focus, the group moved through prescribed steps, which included (1) identifying perspectives through which to consider the topic, (2) delving independently into the research, (3) writing individual papers, (4) sharing findings, (5) synthesizing information, (6) drawing conclusions and (7) collaborating on a presentation.

Facing the ED audience, Samantha described an American education system in which “first . . . we work K─12 to get good grades; then we decide where we want to go to college based on the majors it provides, the size and the location; then we work through college to get good grades; and eventually we graduate and are ready for the workplace.” Recalling much of her education to date, junior Gabrielle Shapo said, “I grew up regurgitating what was on the chalk board.”

With this model, workforce readiness is no guarantee, group members said. Gabrielle cited research from the American Association of Colleges and Universities describing a gap between employers’ and students’ ratings on preparedness: The former gave students low scores and the latter higher ones. Disparities existed in all 17 areas surveyed, including ethical judgment and decision-making, working with people from different backgrounds, and applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

In today’s education system, skills and knowledge required for specific jobs trump the teaching of adaptable skills, group members reported. Students acquire some of the latter skills in traditional academic classrooms, but more often in science laboratories and extracurricular activities. Standardized tests, the group noted, assess mastery of the curriculum but not adaptable skills. This can hinder the ability of colleges to gain a complete picture of their applicants, and can thwart employers’ ability to hire students grounded in job-specific expertise and adaptable skills.

Junior Sean Tieff recognizes a place for lecture-based classrooms: “They have gotten their fair share of criticism, but they are a good source of learning,” he said.  Sean noted that creative educators can weave the teaching of adaptable skills into a standard academic curriculum, by, for example,  providing more labs, offering more opportunities to learn and study in  groups (such as via AP Capstone!), and encouraging internships and outside-the-classroom learning.

Two male students stand in front of a desk and bookcase. One is speaking to the audience, the other listening.

Partnerships of educators and corporate officials can narrow the gap between what students learn and what employers want them to learn, group members suggested; employers can identify omissions (although corporations should not prescribe the curriculum).  Corporations can also fund new teaching methods and training needed for students to learn better adaptable skills.

Following the presentation, group members answered questions from the ED audience and heard suggestions for broadening their research. One questioner suggested group members interview teachers to learn why adaptive skills are not more widely taught.  (The bureaucracy? The budget? Pressure to focus on information in standardized tests?)

A surprise audience member, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, related the students’ ideas about “adaptable skills” with “experiential learning.” Agreeing with its importance, she encouraged them to complete internships and work in their fields as they pursue their education. Junior Alec Stall described positive vibes upon completing the AP Capstone project.  “I am a big procrastinator,” he said. “But this class was really rewarding, because when I got that paper done and I found out how all of my sources connected . . . and how all of the information flowed together . . . that was such a great feeling.”

Nancy Paulu is a writer and editor in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach. All photos are by ED photographer Joshua Hoover.