Futures industry: Preparing students for the next stages of life

Morag Walling says learning for your future is not easy when you are a young person

Morag Walling is Embedding Employability Consultant with King's College, London and the Careers Group

Those who graduated this year aged 21 were the millennial babies, born in 2000 who will reach the current state pension age in 2068. It won’t be long before students coming through our doors will be retiring in the next century; ours is a future-focused industry.

Recent research by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, has identified that the human brain develops more during adolescence than was previously thought. The prefrontal cortex which controls abstract thinking, decision making, planning, and social cognition is not fully mature until one’s mid-20s.

These are crucial factors in being able to navigate life, whether it is towards your working future, your personal future, or to become a responsible member of society.

Navigating a way forward

Structuring learning that is designed to support future development in such a way that every young person can develop their capability in these areas is important for successful student futures. Blakemore’s research indicates that all young people will find this harder than we realised.

When I reflect on my experiences of working both in schools and in higher education, I wonder whether many of the ways we have been supporting young people to develop towards their future selves are not as helpful in this regard as we might be intending them to be.

In Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön describe behaviours which are both helpful and unhelpful for learning.

Encourages Double Loop learning

Effect on learning: allows for reflection and change as awareness increases, celebrates difference​

Single Loop learning – inhibits double loop

Effect on learning: counterproductive as no reflection and generally a face-saving action. Results in “barriers to learning”

  • Values valid information ​
  • Free and informed choice ​
  • Internal commitment to choice​
  • Constant monitoring​
  • Promotes winning all the time​
  • Being in control​
  • Feelings of vulnerability hidden​
  • Defensive responses​

I routinely saw emerging in my work as a careers consultant, both in individuals and with groups of students, more of the patterns of behaviour that were associated with creating or compounding barriers to learning than that which would effect good learning. Was what I was witnessing in fact the result of behavioural coping strategies ?

You may have been witnessing similar coping strategies emerging when students confidently state that they plan to do their masters, work in a certain sector, or need to write their CV. Ploughing on from these points without having done some real exploration and consideration for their own situation can lead to feelings of confusion, stress, and dissatisfaction at later stages in the process of navigating their future both as a first step after university and beyond.

Clearly some young people have already learned how to navigate the current systems by the time they reach higher education but, I would argue, Blakemore’s research highlights that changes are needed to the systems themselves if we want more young people to experience the full value of higher education in relation to their future lives.

We need to find better ways to ensure that all students who pass through our institutions develop their capability to engage more comfortably with their future development.

A different generation

This has become even more important to address now: in the newly changed world, common strategies that young people have used in the past to help orientate themselves in this navigation process may not be as effective as they were previously.

No one, both older peers and adults, have experienced a similar young adulthood, so it’s harder to ask, “What did you do?” and aspire to do the same. For example, direct comparisons of entry to the labour market will be harder to make. In the working world they enter, everyone is learning to navigate change at the same time.

Not only that, the world we are preparing graduates for is changing faster than it did for previous generations and they will need to learn to manage its volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. I’m not suggesting that the working or life experiences of previous generations won’t have relevance, just that it will be more important that young people can pick out the relevant aspects for their own situation.

If this sounds like just making changes to careers and employability programmes, the interim report of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission suggests more expansive work across the whole of the higher education experience will positively contribute to this.

Developing as a confident individual in your current space is some of the best grounding there can be for developing your capability for the next stage, yet we know that many young people struggle with this. Blakemore’s research challenges us to consider whether we can better harness the natural tendencies of youth to improve this.

Space to grow

Recent focuses in higher education on belonging and inclusivity are already starting to take things in a better direction for all students’ futures. Blakemore has identified that there is a “reminiscence bump” during adolescence, so negative as well as positive experiences and feelings will be carried forward into adulthood.

To further address the issues Blakemore identifies as problematic for young people, can we appropriately scaffold all our learning spaces and experiences to enable more young people to see higher education as a safe space in which they can take risks? Are we able to build in practices that are more socially beneficial so that peer interactions can mature appropriately through all aspects of the higher education experience?

This will support all our graduates to feel more confident in their ability to weigh up risks in the future job market and be better prepared for meaningful human interactions that are essential for both workplace and societal integration.

Future-focused learning always entails being able to transpose the relevance of learning experiences from one space into another. Most useful to this are the advanced states of learning of accommodation and transformation as Danish professor Knud Illeris suggests in How We Learn, as opposed to cumulative and assimilative learning which are most relevant to making progress in situations similar to the actual learning environment.

Recognising the complexity involved in learning for your future is one of the aspects that needs to be better recognised as we collectively consider the development of higher education.

Engage with the careers and employability professionals in your institution and at national level to help take this debate further both practically and at policy level: we all have a role to play in the co-creation of future-focused learning experiences that better supports all students to progress successfully on their whole life journeys beyond higher education.

One response to “Futures industry: Preparing students for the next stages of life

  1. A timely piece, something too many in the sector ignore to the detriment of our students, preparing them for the ‘real world ™’ when so many within the hallowed halls have never experienced it themselves isn’t something most Academics are any good at, getting Universities to address that shortfall however is another matter…

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