Ready for Work: How to Teach Students to Be Effective Lifelong Learners

As a former teacher, my family and friends usually have questions or opinions they’d like to share with me about schools and education. Lately, however, I’ve been hearing more from people who interact with recent high school and college graduates in the workplace. A question I’m often asked is "why aren't young people today ready to work?" Initially, I thought this was just an iteration of the same, age-old question, "What's the matter with kids these days?" But, when I heard a friend describe the challenges involved in training workers and promoting employees from within his company, I began thinking seriously about what college and career readiness really entails.

To succeed in almost any career today, we have to prepare young people for a lifetime of learning. This is why teaching students the strategies and tools to be effective learners is critical for future success. There are a host of e-learning tools and professional development programs designed to teach soft skills, train employees, and build internal capacity, but I still believe the greatest resource continues to be educators in schools, after-school programs, and nonprofits who work directly with students throughout their formative years.

Research shows that educational programs that support healthy social, emotional, and psychological development have a great impact on future student achievement not only in school but also in life. By promoting learning in the following key areas, we can prepare young people for greater success in their future careers.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) helps "provide the foundation for maintaining high-quality social relationships and responding to challenges in life" through the development of five key competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. There is strong evidence that SEL programs contribute to increased academic performance and test scores. SEL programs that promote empathy and positive actions also reduce violent behavior and improve relationships amongst students as well as between students and adults. The long-term benefits of SEL programs have been studied extensively, with a recent study finding that every dollar invested in a SEL program returned $11 in benefits that ranged from reduced juvenile crime, better mental and physical health, to higher lifetime earnings (Belfield et al., 2015). At CarrotNewYork, we believe education programs about social emotional learning are vitally important to educating children for life. This is why we work with organizations like Sandy Hook Promise to create curriculums that promote social inclusion in schools.  Read more here.

Academic Tenacity refers to the psychological factors that promote learning and achievement such as resilience, grit and a growth mindset. In a recent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2014) study, it is defined as "the mindsets and skills that allow students to look beyond short-term concerns to longer-term goals, and withstand challenges and setbacks to persevere toward these goals."  Students who see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow achieve greater success in school and life than students who become demoralized. By making small adjustments in educational environments, like setting individual goals with students or teaching lessons on how the brain “gets smarter” over time, educators and mentors can help students develop academic tenacity.

Metacognition is the ability to "think about thoughts" with the aim of improving learning. Research has found that explicit instruction in metacognition can lead to learning success across subjects and grade levels through college (Baker, 2013; Dunlosky & Metcalfe, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1993). When students are aware of how they learn, they can develop strategies to study on their own, monitor their progress, and improve performance in school and life. Like academic tenacity, metacognition can actually be taught and practiced in school.

Becoming engaged, persistent, and skillful learners is an essential part of becoming college and career ready. Given the positive impacts resulting from improved learning like enjoying greater success at work, my hope is that we continue supporting educational programs that develop skills in these key areas.