Why Adaptable Students Become Successful People5 min read

In 1945, my grandfather returned home from World War II and started working as an electrician at a brass factory. While his roles and duties changed over time, he stayed with that company at that factory for the next forty years until he retired. Forty years with most of the same people and the same setting doing the same tasks.

This is what many people from his generation experienced. The economy grew under stable and predictable jobs, and school was a place to learn how to thrive in this environment.

Fast forward seventy years, and the average American has twelve different jobs throughout their lifetimes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median amount of time a person holds a specific job is about four years. In fact, on average, millennials have around five different jobs before they are even thirty.

The days of cashing out a pension after forty years of loyalty are over.

Whether you view this as a negative or a positive, it is a reality that isn’t going anywhere. In fact, there are currently 53.7 million freelancers in America; 37% of all workers do so for companies on a contract basis. Stephanie Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork says, “Professionals are not only turning away from traditional employment, once they do most have no desire to go back. (They are) increasingly building flexible careers on their own terms, based on their passions, desired lifestyle and access to a much broader pool of opportunities than ever before in history.” The rigid hierarchies and familiarity of the workforce is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

This freelance work culture, whether a person in it is self-employed or job-hops every few years, means that people are constantly working with new people in different systems. To do so, they have to be able to adapt. They need to know how to enter an unfamiliar ecosystem, join the culture there, and thrive right away.

When school looks like the outdated model of employment based on a standard hierarchy of management (teachers) and employees (students), we are doing students a disservice.

The workforce is looking less and less like this, and students need to be introduced to the new work model. Students need to learn adaptability and how to assimilate and thrive in new environments with new people and new challenges.

If students do not struggle through these challenges in school, they will inevitably face them in the workforce where there is less room for grace and correction. According to research by Barclays LifeSkills, “60 percent (of employers) report that adaptability has become more important during the previous decade; 20 percent, meanwhile, say that adaptability is lacking among recruits, and only 8 percent actually provide specific training for this.”

Too many people are failing at their jobs for lacking this important trait and skill. School needs to be a place where students have the space and opportunities to learn to be agile and adaptable.

This starts with creating a school environment that requires agility. When schoolwork is predictable and the only aspect of it that changes is the subject matter, students do not have to be agile and adapt. Therefore, they need to be forced out of their comfort zones often. Part of this entails regularly moving seating and groups assignments around. Even though students might want to work with their friends and the people they are comfortable with, collaborating with new people can have a much greater impact on the project’s success as well as individual growth. When students are obligated to work with new people, have and resolve conflicts with unfamiliar peers, and build professional relationships with peers outside of their friend groups, students are forced to be agile and adapt.

Another way to build agility and adaptability is to regularly rotate tasks students work on in collaborative groups. If one student has a propensity towards technology and is usually the one to edit videos, create graphics, conduct research, or whatever else involving a computer, challenge that student to give that role to someone else for a specific project. Maybe even require it. You might be met with frustration at first because that student is comfortable with a technology task and the rest of the group wants them to have it as well, but this will force a different student to adapt and learn a new skill.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to develop adaptability and agility in your students is to model it yourself. Any educator in any level of the school system knows that there is rarely a day that looks the same as the last. From fire alarms, absent students, surprise administrator visits, downed WIFI, loose baby goats (this actually happened in my class), students outbursts, trying out brand new lessons, power outages, etc.- being a teacher requires adaptability.

Teachers should be vocal about when they are forced to adapt in different situations. If the WIFI is out and your internet-based lesson is no longer possible, let students in on your thought process as you come up with an alternative lesson. If you make the decision to do a similar activity on paper, make students aware how you came to that conclusion, where you got the idea, and why you think it will still be worthwhile.

There are so many other ways to encourage and teach adaptability, and to do so in school requires intentionality on the teacher’s part. When students know how to adapt to new environments, situations, and people, they are set up to thrive in a world that looks very different from my grandfather’s.

Want more ideas to teach adaptability? Check out my new book, The Collaborative Classroom.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.