At Strada Institute, we focus on the need for more on- and off-ramps for adult learners and workers, especially in the face of a more turbulent future of work. Nevertheless, we recognize how interdependent K-12 and postsecondary education and training systems are. Take, for example, an adult learner seeking to upskill by learning to write computer code. That person must have a working knowledge of logic processes, pattern and sequence recognition, as well as basic numeracy skills. 

How do postsecondary learning providers know whether an adult learner has those foundational skills? A high school diploma doesn’t provide that specific information, nor would the traditional transcript. For an adult learner returning years after leaving formal education systems, the link is even more tenuous. K-12 teachers do their level best to prepare students for a range of possibilities. Training providers hope that their learners have those skills. But there is an unknown chasm between the two. 

All is not lost, however. According to CB Insights, a venture capital research firm, EdTech startup funding grew from $385 million in 2009 to $3.4 billion in 2015. Many of these innovators are working on platforms and programs that, while currently K-12 focused, could be used for the benefit of adult learners looking to broaden their horizons by building their own job-relevant skills. 

At a recent conference, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the small EdTech companies with potentially promising models related to apprenticeships, human+ skills (a combination of soft skills and technical skills), and contextualized learning that could be applied to adult learners. (None of these should be taken as an endorsement of a particular company.)

  1. Real-world work experiences for learners: A company called Sidekick is seeking to “turn high school internships into in-class projects” by connecting employers, who need interns, to schools, who need material for real-world, project-based learning (PBL, some illuminating studies of which can be found here). In conversations with Chris Shaw, one of Sidekick’s co-founders, he cautioned that as much as we hold up PBL as a new gold standard for skills mastery, not all projects are created equal. As much fun as it is for students to imagine what their future employment will be, it’s even more powerful when they have an opportunity to try out that work in an employment setting. Similar to an apprenticeship model, students get the benefit of on-the-job training, knowledge of business culture, and the chance to see how their learning in the classroom is applied beyond the classroom setting. It’s a great model for adult learning as well, where we’ve seen the value of internships to teach everything from technical skill development to how to acclimate to an office environment.
  2. Entrepreneurship as a gateway to building leadership, skills and social capital: WeThrive, a company that helps high school students become entrepreneurs, shows the value of learning leadership, analytical skills, and problem-solving skills as well as building social capital. One of WeThrive’s representatives told us that one of their goals is to encourage teachers to “step back,” to let the students take the reins, take risks, and become leaders. Such a model would be valuable to those 44 million adults whom Strada Institute has identified as being most at risk of losing out in the economic and technological transformations of the future. As entrepreneurship programs grow, more high school students will acquire those skills in preparation for the world of work. Adult learning providers, meanwhile, are recognizing the benefits of adding such human+ skills to the programs they offer.
  3. Teaching math through play, intergenerationally: MathBRIX has created an app with the goal to teach mathematics to young children through the manipulation of visual “bricks”. MathBRIX’s representative gave us a preview of a new program they are developing called Parent Connect, an effort to help parents and children learn math together through play. One of the biggest challenges for many parents in teaching math to their children is that some parents don’t know it well enough in their own right. Not only will such parents struggle to help their children learn, but they may also pass their own insecurities along to their children. This “cognitive confidence” is one of four desired outcomes for children ages zero to eight highlighted by the National Academy of Sciences in 2016. MathBRIX hopes that in helping parents to help their children, the parents will bolster their own skills. There is an old adage that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else. Adult learners can foster their own skills by teaching similar skills to their children.

In short, there’s a lot we can learn from the innovations emerging in K-12 education. Programs seeking to bring practical skills to young learners could similarly offer them to adult learners, helping to re-engage a population at risk of being left behind in the new world of work. 

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