The Future of K–12 Education: Developing Content Knowledge AND Essential Learning Skills

Adaptability is Key

Nobody is more aware of the constant state of flux in our world than the young people that are wading into it, often knee deep, navigating the ebbs and flows. Every new generation is eager to share their experiences, challenge what doesn’t seem to fit, and search for opportunities to carve a unique niche or path forward. Ah, to be young again. Yet the opportunities awaiting today’s students look very different than even those awaiting high school graduates even just 15 years ago. 

Today’s world places greater emphasis on innovation, creation, questioning, problem solving, and even empathy and vulnerability as attributes of success.  We live in an era of rapidly changing rules and priorities. That means our students must learn to adapt, and how we as educators prepare youth to be successful in the classroom and beyond also evolve. According to hiring managers and college admissions professionals, the candidates they’re looking for have a unique new set of skills that go deeper than content knowledge.

The Most Sought-After Skills 

A 2018 survey conducted by Cengage/Morning Consult Group1 found that nearly three in four employers say they have a hard time finding graduates with the essential skills their companies need. These skills are critical thinking, communication, listening, innovation, problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal skills. In fact, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey2 notes that the most valuable skills of the future are those that technology and machines can’t yet perform, and they suggest that young people need to “learn how to learn” if they hope to adapt to a fast-changing employment environment.

There is a clear ask from our future workers and innovators. And it’s our job, as educators, to listen and deliver. 

What Can Secondary Educators Do? 

Middle and high school educators are in a unique position to support young people in developing these sought-after learning skills that translate into success in secondary school and after graduation. But as with all teaching, educators need data to guide their instruction. However, traditional assessments can’t measure students’ strengths and areas for improvement in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. Multiple choice isn’t the answer in this new era.

While the skills may be more difficult to measure than reading, writing and math, you can still gather hard data about students’ proficiency. That’s where authentic, performance-based assessments come in. Rather than selecting the right answer from a series of choices, students are presented with a real-world scenario that they must analyze, think critically about, and recommend next steps and solutions based on the information at hand. Students are not evaluated on their answer, but on how they came to that answer and how they communicated their decision. 

With this data in hand, teachers can look for opportunities in the core curricula and throughout the school day to provide students with practice using soft skills. While some students may have fallen behind in reading, math, science, and social studies during pandemic-related disruptions to learning, many students actually made gains in these essential learning skills. From time management and self-motivation to public speaking on Zoom, distance learning required students, and teachers, to be flexible and adaptable. Educators can build on that momentum and help students further develop soft skills even as learning resumes in a more traditional format. 

Content knowledge and learning skills go hand-in-hand to make students successful once they leave high school. By approaching learning skills in the same way as the 3 Rs — assessing students’ knowledge, targeting instruction to build skills, and monitoring growth — educators will send more young people into the world with a fully-stocked toolbox, ready for their ever-changing futures.

Looking for a Performance-Based Assessment of Students’ Essential Learning Skills?

Tap into the rich, insightful data CCRA+ offers

CAE’s College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+) goes beyond content knowledge to uncover if students are prepared to take on the challenges of secondary school, college, and careers. This performance-based assessment identifies students’ strengths and opportunities for improvement in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving, and effective written communication. Fill out the form to learn more and request a demo.  



1 Wilke, Dana. (2019, October 21). Employers Say Students Aren’t Learning Soft Skills in College: Part 2: College grads are deficient in critical thinking, teamwork, speaking and writing, executives say. SHRM.
2 Anderson, Janna, & and Rainie, Lee. (2017, May 3). The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training. Pew Research Center.

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