What Works in Schools Is Real Work

The best type of curriculum for preparing students for the workforce is one that focuses on real-world problem-solving. It sounds simple, but for the first time, we have clearly established a link between students learning 21st century skills and future work success.

The results of a Gallup/Microsoft Partners in Learning/Pearson Foundation study show that young workers in the U.S. who reported learning 21st century skills in their last year of school are more likely to say they have higher work quality. In fact, those reporting high levels of 21st century skill development in school are twice as likely to have higher work quality compared with their peers who had low 21st century skill development.

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In the study, the 21st century skills include knowledge construction, real-world problem-solving, collaboration, self-regulation, skilled communication, technology, and global awareness. Of all these, real-world problem-solving is the most important factor of higher work quality. Positive responses to the following two items have the strongest link to work quality:

  1. “Worked on a long-term project that took several classes to complete”
  2. “Used what you were learning about to develop solutions to real-world problems in your community or in the world”

Together, these skills learned in school are strongly linked to perceived higher quality work later in life—but not nearly enough young Americans report regular school-based exposure to them. In a Gallup/Microsoft Partners in Learning/Pearson Foundation nationally representative poll of young Americans aged 18 to 35 who are students or are employed, 59% strongly agree or agree that they developed most of the skills they use in their current job outside of school. For example, while a vast majority of respondents (86%) say they “used computers or technology to complete an assessment or project” during their last year of school, hardly any (14%) report using collaborative technologies such as video conferencing or online collaboration tools that people use in today’s workplace.

Now that we know the importance of these skills—real-world problem-solving in particular—we have a lot of work to do to reorient our education system to focus on them. For students to be successful in the workplace, we need to expose them to long-term projects, help them apply knowledge to real-world problems, and ask them to use technology in ways that are more like how people use it in the real world.

It is not surprising that young Americans with college degrees are significantly more likely to experience 21st century skills in school than those with only a high school degree. But, there is an indication that we are making solid progress across our education system in recent years, as the youngest Americans in our study (those ages 18 to 22) are more likely to have experienced 21st century skills compared with those between the ages of 23 and 35. Recent pushes to incorporate project-based learning in school could be influencing this result, which suggests that we are on the right track and need to keep moving in this direction.

We also learned something stunning about the role of teachers in students’ future work success: When students have more voice in their education and their aspirations are known, levels of 21st century skills and work quality later in life are significantly higher. The study found that young Americans who say they had teachers who “cared about my problems and feelings” and who “knew about my hopes and dreams” were much more likely to report experiencing more 21st century skill development, which in turn links to work success. Simply put, teachers who care about students’ hopes and dreams plus real-world problem-solving equals better life outcomes.

These findings combined with decades of Gallup’s best research on what should be the New Bill of Rights for All Students, give us a clear mandate on what we should be doing in schools.

The vision for what we should be doing in schools: Students have teachers who care about them, know their hopes and dreams, and help them discover what they like to do and what they do best. Students work hard applying what they are learning over long-term projects involving collaborative technologies that aim to solve real-world problems.

Read more about these findings on Gallup.com and in the full report.

View an interactive story to learn more about how to achieve better student outcomes.

Brandon Busteed leads the development of Gallup’s education work which involves integrating Gallup’s research and science on selection, strengths, engagement, and wellbeing to improve student success, teacher effectiveness, and education outcomes.

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