Graham Hunter, VP of Skills, CompTIA

Ask a teenager today what they want to “be” when they grow up, and you will likely hear a pretty convincing one or two-word response. Dig a bit deeper and you may find that they have very little concept of what’s required to get there or the skills they’ll need to be successful in that job.

It’s a stark reality that goes far beyond the classroom and permeates IT workplaces in the form of the much-discussed skills gap.

While young people may have a great sense of what they’d like to aspire to, the Industrial Strategy Council published a report showing that England has a significant problem with basic literacy and numeracy skills in young people, and digital competency is in extremely short supply.

But importantly, it’s not the fault of young people.

Teaching for life-long application of knowledge and skills, workplace readiness and digital competency

Schools are, in many cases, teaching to the test and for the short term. Unfortunately, they’re not necessarily teaching for life-long application of knowledge and skills, or for workplace readiness and digital competency.

That short-sightedness is hurting young professional’s prospects, is widening the digital skills gap, and it’s certainly hurting our economy.

Rote memorisation and quick recall may serve one well on University Challenge, but in the workplace it’s application that matters, and that’s where the system seems to be failing young people (young people who are, coincidentally, far more ethnically and socio-economically diverse than those who might appear on University Challenge!).

The vicious cycle of learning and assessment

For children that are less academically-astute, the cycle of learning and assessment is a vicious one leading to feelings of poor self-worth and, over time, decreased motivation and then even worse academic performance.

We’ve seen where that path leads for too many: Unemployment > Underemployment > Criminal behaviour > Violence / Addiction

We’ve got to do better by young people. Why should a student’s failure in one or two subjects (which may be rooted in factors outside of school life) push them towards a life of lowered expectations, even lower wages and missed opportunity?

Recent changes to the GCSE format are compounding the situation for many, with less coursework and fewer low-stake touch-points along the way, culminating in a higher-stakes exam situation at the end of the two years.

One senior teacher recently explained in an interview that lower achieving students are “completely demoralised” by these changes.

The disconnect between paper-based exams and a digital workload is huge

In the world of work, the fact is that no one spends two years preparing for one exam that will determine their entire future within a company. For those aspiring to a career in IT or digital, the disconnect between paper-based exams and the digital workload they’ll one day manage is often huge.

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While school is not intended to be merely a microcosm of employment (nor should it be) the assessment model simply isn’t sustainable or helpful in preparing students for many of the skills, digital or otherwise, that they will ultimately need in life.

Real life is far more like a video game, in some regards. We’re all chugging away daily, trying to win the little victories and unlock basic necessities as we slowly but surely work our way up to the next level, whatever that may be.

To that end, I’m encouraged by initiatives like Nintendo’s Digital Schoolhouse, which is reaching some 32,000 students in 55 schools through the power of games, and helping them build transferable skills like logic, perseverance and adaptability.

These are the skills that will serve students far beyond any exam. These skills are, I believe, where we should focus instead of on stress-inducing assessments that, if we’re honest, no one believes are a true measure of a young person’s intelligence or potential.

Students today are sceptical of the traditional academic route

Fewer young people today think university is a worthwhile endeavour, and it can be surmised that the rigid, exam-based path to getting there is part of the reason they’re discouraged. Just 65% of young people now think university is important, compared to 85% just six years ago.

Students today are sceptical of the traditional route, and are increasingly seeking out alternative routes like apprenticeships to get them where they’d like to be. Alternative routes often allow for real-world learning to take place right away and on the job, rather than in the vacuum of a classroom.

These routes can be of particular interest for people with a digital skillset that’s focused on “real time” and project-based work. For young people who have bills to pay and the realities of life to grapple with, delaying a career by three years or more to learn information that may be outdated by the time of graduation might simply be less attractive than it was for previous generations.

Changing our overall outlook on education to close the skills gap

Exams need to change, it’s true, but so does our overall outlook on education. The fact that exams are central to a person’s success or failure not just in school but in life speaks volumes about the need for a longer-term view of learning.

Learning is a lifelong process, and it’s preposterous to assume it ends when someone leaves school or even university.

Thinking beyond the classroom, employers want their workers to be continually up-skilling, training and staying aligned with industry trends and career-specific advancements, and that kind of ongoing learning environment benefits employees too.

For anyone who didn’t perform well in school exams, in-the-workplace education and training offer a redeeming and supportive atmosphere where real and useful learning can take place. And exams have nothing to do with it.

Are the often-archaic school assessments today really of any utility to most employers?

I think it’s time we started assessing people for the skills that matter - critical thinking, the ability to find and use effective sources of information, the ability to manage projects and more. That kind of “soft” knowledge goes a lot further in today’s employment landscape than much of what’s currently tested. Those aspiring to work in IT or digital would fare well with simulation-based exams that assess what they can do with their knowledge in a digital environment that mirrors the workplace.

Importantly, changing our focus to a new set of skills helps us cast a wider net of people who can succeed in school and higher education, and who can go on to hold meaningful roles in digital. In order to close the skills gap we need to dramatically rethink the way we assess young people and how we deem them worthy or (in too many cases, unworthy) of entering the workforce.

We’re letting too many people fall through the cracks and letting too much talent go to waste because of an outdated notion of assessment, and our digital economy is paying the price. It’s time to promote a more inclusive learning environment, and to look for new ways to engage with young people.

We need to get everyone thinking beyond the test and for the long-term. In other words, the system needs to be far less University Challenge and far more Great British Bake Off.

Young people deserve an ongoing chance to show what they can do rather than just one shot to tell what they know. Given the right learning environment and pathway, almost any student can thrive.

Graham Hunter, VP of Skills, CompTIA

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