Embedding world of work knowledge in the classroom can transform how students feel about their learning

Lucy Sattler

Author headshotEducation has many purposes, and one of those is to help young people prepare for their working lives. School should give them the skills and knowledge they need to set off on a grand career adventure, and part of this includes the development of a positive career mindset. Young people need to switch on to their careers and build the skills and knowledge they’ll use to find, secure and keep work in a field they love throughout their lives.

Children begin to form ideas about the type of work they want to do when they’re very young – even before school has started – and these ideas coalesce into a mindset that guides their choices throughout school and beyond. This mindset helps them make decisions about which subjects they take, how hard they work and what other activities they choose, all of which will affect the number of options they have to choose from at the end of their time at school. That’s why it is so important to guide students as they build their career mindset.

Teachers often lack the time, training and knowledge to help students cultivate a career mindset. Research shows that subject-area teachers are a significant influence on post-school decisions, yet many teachers have little experience of other occupations outside of teaching, and limited exposure to apprenticeship pathways. This limits their ability to offer impartial career guidance on a wide range of pathways – they simply don’t have the knowledge they need, and this affects students’ development of career mindsets. If we want to ensure students leave school with a positive career mindset, then we need to start in the classroom.

Embedding world of work knowledge within the curriculum can transform how students feel about their learning. When teachers help students understand why they are learning algebra or Shakespeare, they become more engaged with the content, which in turn leads to improved academic and well-being outcomes. They can see the point, which gets them thinking about the purpose of what they’re doing and connects their classroom learning with life once school is over. From the earliest days of school, students can begin to connect their interests, knowledge and skills with possible future career paths; they learn to develop an individual career mindset.

 The role of mindset in engagement (and disengagement)

Disengagement is a problem across the board; according to Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workforce Report, four out of five adults don’t feel engaged at work. Disengaged individuals earn less, have poorer health outcomes and are less productive, which affects business and the economy. But disengagement isn’t confined to adults – a 2013 study of students in high-performing US high schools found that two-thirds of students are not regularly engaged in their learning.

These students don’t see the point of what they’re learning. The disengagement habits they form at school follow them into the workforce because they’re not acquiring the deep-learning, cognitive-engagement skills they need to build a productive career mindset.

Male student resting head on hand looking at laptop
Even high-performing students may become disengaged if they don’t understand the purpose of what they’re learning. (iStock)

Disengagement has three dimensions: behavioural, emotional and cognitive. While it is relatively easy to identify students who are behaviourally disengaged (attendance, in-class behaviour, etc.), it is much more difficult for educators to accurately identify students who are emotionally or cognitively disengaged. These students have an apathy toward school, which leads them to take the easy path; even gifted students settle for average marks and each day they simply “go through the motions.” This is a particular problem for students in their mid-teens, who are too far away from their final exams to find them motivating and are less likely to engage with standard school measures of achievement.

Expectancy-Value Theory links student beliefs about the value of their learning to their motivation and effort; students who see value in what they’re learning relative to their lives become more engaged. One solution to the disengagement problem could be to link what students are learning in class with their future careers and use this to build a positive career mindset.

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Fostering relevance in the classroom

Teachers who foster relevance between lesson content and the student’s interests and aspirations have the power to transform how students approach their learning.

To foster relevance, a teacher needs to understand how the content they deliver relates to jobs that exist in the labour market, and this requires a deep understanding of the world of work.

Teachers also need to connect the content in a way that helps students make decisions about how it relates to their lives. For example, a mathematics teacher may explain that engineers use trigonometry to build strong bridges, and that if a student becomes a builder, engineer or carpenter, they may also use trigonometry in this way. Teachers can go further and explain that students who find trigonometry interesting may want to explore careers where they get to work with spatial design at a range of levels, from product designers through to landscapers.

Students lack the world-of-work experience to be able to make these mental links without support, but the evidence base for fostering relevance as an intervention to improve student engagement is strong. With the right support, schools can implement programs to embed career learning with the curriculum.

An integrated approach

A school-wide approach is needed if students are to develop a positive career mindset during their time at school. Rather than sidelining career education to one class, or limiting exposure to specific year levels, a holistic and inclusive career education program creates a culture of career readiness and gives students the opportunity to learn about their career and reflect on a regular basis.

More schools are already moving towards this model; they are integrating innovation and entrepreneurship education, setting up ‘soft skill’ development programs, and offering peer mentoring to give students the non-academic skills they need to thrive. Collaborative programs, such as the University of Melbourne’s New Metrics for Success and the global Big Picture Learning movement, are seeking to engage with “forward-thinking” schools to revisit everything we value in education.

“… a holistic and inclusive career education program creates a culture of career readiness and gives students the opportunity to learn about their career and reflect on a regular basis.”

In some places, schools are now required to deliver career education to a set standard. For example, the UK introduced the Gatsby Benchmarks to mandate career education standards in schools. Shifting the school culture toward one that actively prepares students for their lives requires a change of focus and the introduction of career education into every aspect of school life.

Embedding career education content does not have to mean a complete rethink of our education system, as small steps can increase the number of touchpoints students have with career education on a regular basis. This may be as simple as introducing a ‘life prep’ section into the weekly assembly, and then reinforcing these skills in homeroom or student mentoring programs, which, over time, should lead to cultural change and a school-wide focus on life preparation and career management skills. Within the curriculum, inserting short videos and talking points that connect the current unit of work with particular jobs, or hanging posters that link learning areas with their associated careers, should help students assess the relevance of the content to their lives. Teachers should also be provided with the professional development and resources they need to connect their content with a range of career pathways at the start of each unit, with the support of the school career professional.

Through small actions, schools can begin to build a culture where a career mindset is valued.

Lucy Sattler is a career education professional with a passion for helping young people make informed choices about life once school is over. She is the CEO and Founder of Study Work Grow, and through her work she supports hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of students with engaging, evidence-based career development resources.