“When am I EVER going to use this?” is the classic question that drives teachers crazy. Because of the way education is currently structured, many teachers in regular education don’t have an answer. Those of us involved in CTE, however, believe we can give our students the answers they’re looking for.

We believe there will be a time in the near future when the skills students learn today are the same ones they will be using in their future careers. Perhaps we have enjoyed a moment of satisfaction in being able to give a definitive answer to the question that has stumped so many teachers for decades. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that the “future career” answer is no longer good enough.


Start with the Why

Start with the why for today, not the why for 10 or 20 years from now. We need to start with why the skills we are teaching matter today, how they can enrich and improve our students’ lives today. Students cannot comprehend the importance of skills they will only apply in a far distant future. The answer to the question, “When am I going to use this?” has to be today. We need to give a direct application that allows students to experience the importance of these skills.

And this is where career technical education offers a unique opportunity. As we allow students to explore careers through application, we also can help them explore and develop their non-cognitive skills -- their emotional intelligence (EI). Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults develop EI: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Global Awareness, Ethical Decision-Making Skills, Relationship Skills, and Self-Management Skills. The behaviors that result from developing emotional competencies (things like saying please and thank you, understanding other people’s body language, effectively listening, or arriving on time) are arguably more-used on a daily basis than much of the content being delivered in K-12. 


EQ vs IQ is the wrong mentality

There’s a battle in conventional wisdom of Education. What is more important for our children to learn, traditional academics, measured by our Intelligence Quotient (IQ) or social-emotional competencies, measured by our Emotional Quotient (EQ)? Thinking it’s an either-or answer could lead us down the wrong path, and a knee jerk reaction to all the social challenges facing children today: anxiety, depression, apathy. We need to address both IQ and EQ in student growth to avoid unintended consequences down the road. 

We know that for innovation to happen, we need high levels of experience and expertise even without traditional academics still in play. The path forward is one where we are infusing Social-Emotional Learning into all lesson topics in all grades for all students. This is not an easy task as traditionally SEL has lived in K-6 for behavioral interventions. However, it can be done. After a history lesson on war, a skilled facilitator can ask their class to debate each side of the conflict, which in turn can help develop empathy skills. During the disassembly and reassembly of a truck engine, a teacher can ask students to explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, thereby developing systems thinking skills. This strategy is not only easier on our teachers, but helps our learners see daily application.


Workforce challenges are now school place challenges

Education’s heightened focus on EQ through SEL is born out of the stresses seen in today’s students but addressing social and emotional competencies has been a focus in Industry since the invention of the corporate Human Resources function in the late 19th century. Human Resources, born out of the industrial revolution, was intended to protect humans as we integrated into a system of industry. The through line for all four of our industrial revolutions has been to increase productivity. The first industrial revolution was the harnessing of steam power, the second adding factory processes, the third was the digitization of information, and today, the fourth industrial revolution uses automation to increase our production efficiency. All the while, our Human Resource professionals have been addressing (and mostly reacting to) the challenges of our highly innovative and rapidly changing industrial systems, making it one of the fastest growing fields in the nation.

My local Workforce Development Board did a study a few months ago. They asked hundreds of organizations the question, “What are some of the challenges facing your company today?” The results, which are not uncommon with businesses across the nation, were Communication, Professionalism, Leadership, Accepting Feedback, and Taking Initiative. Share these topics of concern with most middle and high school teachers and there is an unfortunate relatableness. Notice how few of these skills are technical. In the age of technology, human skills are valued by employers more than ever. These are the skills our students have to walk away with and will help them beyond their careers.These human skills are far more important than any certificate or passing any assessment.


The future starts with creating a common language

Automation is nothing new. Humans like to innovate. Our constant drive to innovate has been disrupting career fields since the industrial age. But automation continues to push and redefine the career market. How do we prepare students for this changing future?

The answer is in our humanity. Being human is a unique trait. It is impossible to automate. Being human is a differentiator. In fact, in a changing marketplace, the human skills are what matter the most. By focusing on developing those traits that keep us human: empathy, critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, and curiosity, we are able to “future-proof” our learners and give them the best opportunity for success in today's world.

The infusion of EQ and the coming rebalancing of its coexistence with IQ will be the challenge both education and industry will face. There is a huge opportunity to create a common language. Soft skills or leadership skills needed to be defined and narrowed down to social and emotional competencies. Imagine if a student who is at an internship receives feedback from the employer that aligns with the language of their school competencies? It takes buy-in from both industry and education to design and agree upon how communities talk about social and emotional competencies, a feat that, like the railroad, can increase our efficiency, but more importantly will produce better humans who have the skills to be successful today and prepared for tomorrow.  


About the authors

Edgar wants to live in a world filled with happy and fulfilled humans, where everyone finds value in their experience of life through play, work and meaningful human interactions. In this world, karaoke happens more days than not and there is always room for another friend to talk about positive systemic change. As a gregarious shenanigator with more than 20 years of experience in workforce and human development, he’s worked with a multitude of school districts and workforce agencies to explore and improve the way we approach our lives through his emotional intelligence curricula and training company, IMAGO. When he’s not inspiring change one young mind at a time or running innovative workshops around the nation, you can find him running around barefoot with his family and encouraging his team of change agents toward IMAGO’s vision for a happier, more emotionally intelligent world.

Dr. Brett Taylor is committed to innovating the educational system at all levels. He was the founding principal of the Phillip J. Patino School of Entrepreneurship and the designer of the Educational Entrepreneurship Masters and Doctoral concentrations at the University of the Pacific. He founded NewSchool Innovation Consulting to help educational organizations design unique programs. He coordinates his work with like-minded consultants and contractors to give educational organizations the best team possible to facilitate innovative change.