What do kids need to be learning in school to enter the future workforce? Small changes to Utah’s education system have big impacts, especially for underserved populations.

The future of education is inclusive, flexible and hands-on

What do kids need to be learning in school to enter the future workforce? Small changes to Utah’s education system have big impacts, especially for underserved populations.

Just as workforces have evolved to embrace remote labor and take a more relaxed approach to different productivity styles, schools are going through a similar transition process. 

Or, at least, they need to. No two students have the same matrix of needs, and because of this, education will likely shift dramatically in the years and decades to come. With new technology, changes in work culture, and better studies on development and learning—not to mention increased awareness of the power of school environments in shaping social literacy—there are massive shifts underway in education

Access to education

Harold Foster was visiting a school in Salt Lake City when he encountered an Indigenous student in the hall. He made a point to spend at least 10 minutes talking to him.

“This was a Navajo student who was in the fifth grade, kind of a little shy,” Foster says. “I think that him, just looking at me—that there was a spark … [native students in urban areas] don’t see [other native people] in their classrooms.”

As the American Indian specialist and Title VI coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, Foster does a lot of site visits. Title VI is a federal grant program that provides an officer at schools with more than 10 native students. The board uses funding to help students apply for Pell grants, navigate college applications, and more

Foster, who was born on the Navajo Reservation, worked as a teacher in Indigenous communities like his own for 16 years. He knew how important it was for students to see representation in the adults around them, especially away from the reservation and in the Salt Lake area.

“A lot of the remote areas, they don’t have access to the internet, much less access to electricity or running water in their homes,” Foster says. “So that’s a big challenge … It’s not that students weren’t learning, it’s that the opportunities weren’t there for them. There was no infrastructure.”

Dustin Jansen, Utah’s director of the Division of Indian Affairs, says funding can be a big problem facing rural schools. “I don’t think it’s on par with other states,” he says.

During Covid, children on reservations didn’t have access to the internet and couldn’t complete lessons. Even college students who were studying away from the reservation and had to return home suddenly found themselves unable to attend courses because of this infrastructure problem.

“Test scores dropped, participation dropped, parent participation dropped, and professional development dropped because we couldn’t get that information out to students,” Foster says.

The internet is more accessible in these areas than it was before.

“We have a lot of different programs across the state to try to get broadband into different places so students can have access to education,” Jansen says. “We’re working on that, but that’s something that can always be addressed and looked at.”

Down in San Juan county, Jansen points out, children were climbing up mesas behind their homes to try to get a signal.

“As we recovered within the last year, our test scores have improved, graduation has improved,” Foster says. “[Infrastructure] is an important part of opening the doors to an equitable education.”

Better access to the internet, increased diversity in the classroom settings, and better inclusion in lesson content—recognizing, for example, that challenges facing Indigenous lives are not just something in the past—are all aspects both Foster and Jansen brought up. And Foster, in his years working in education, has seen positive trends in each of these directions.

A massive push toward science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in schools is part of efforts to encourage students to work in industries that are high paying and help drive the economy. In particular, STEM initiatives across the country have pushed for inclusion for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations to help reduce inequality.

This is important for Foster, who says STEM is deeply connected to Native American communities. “A lot of the culture is associated with STEM,” he says, pointing out that his office focuses on math by teaching courses on beading during yearly summer camps they run each year. “If you really take that apart and really study it, when you put a bead together, there are numbers involved in that … When you get to the end, you find that there’s a design.”

Because Indigenous teachers have lived in both worlds, Foster says, they understand that concept and can help teach math to their students by framing it through a method that also preserves cultural practices.

Education—or lack of access to it—touches every life. As a result, the future of learning in Utah is a lot like the future of society: aligned with changes in technology, deeply connected to social and economic growth, changes in needs and the growth of communities.

The school of life

“I remember yearning for a better hands-on sense of what I was doing,” says Reggie Hyppolite, reflecting on his academic work. Hyppolite is a first-generation college graduate who grew up in New York City and attended Brigham Young University. After graduating in 2011, he spent years in Utah before returning to New York. Last year, he became the head of the city’s alumni chapter of BYU.

Though he studied engineering, Hyppolite now works in finance as VP of compliance at BlackRock after 10 years at Goldman Sachs.

“The engineering program I went through was fairly rigorous, and that’s something I’m proud of,” he says. “But it was very academic. I remember wanting more real-world experience and more application to what I was doing. But that came in my capstone.”

Increasingly, hands-on experiences and learning are valued by students. A 2021 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology found a positive link between experiential learning and career goals. 

“The positive effect of [experiential learning] has actual implications for teachers who are thinking of implementing this method in their classes,” wrote Yangtao Kong, a professor at Shaanxi Normal University, in the study. “Indeed, they can guarantee their learners’ success by providing them with the knowledge required in performing the task as following the experiential theory. Knowledge is built through converting practice into understanding.”

For students in Utah, where most of the population are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hyppolite says serving church missions can provide this type of learning.

“Thinking back, the experience of serving a mission—more than probably my experience as a student at BYU—was what really prepped me to go into the workforce,” he continues. “I went stateside to Florida, Spanish-speaking, and that experience really matures you very quickly … It really puts you out of your comfort zone.”

Hyppolite says another shift he has seen at BYU since his graduation is an increased focus on diversity. The university created an Office of Belonging in 2022 to create opportunities for inclusion and diversity on campus. While Hyppolite says it may have come late compared to other universities, he considered it progress and was happy to see the school embracing that kind of work.

Jansen of the state’s Division of Indian Affairs points out that these programs have existed for a while and are key to helping address the needs of learners from low-income backgrounds or who are first-generation college students.

“Especially in urban areas, these Title VI coordinators bring in native people from the community to help teach students more about their culture,” Jansen says.

Diversity programs and experiential learning can go hand-in-hand, Hyppolite says. Diverse curricula and interactions with professors and peers from many racial and social backgrounds can help prepare students for the world after college; meanwhile, experiential learning works in a similar way.

Everyone learns differently

According to experts, globalization and social change are key aspects of education trends. The World Economic Forum (WEF) described this process in a 2020 paper as “new models of education” within a new industrial revolution. Their analysis was that direct, in-classroom education resulted from a capitalist system that required workers for mass-production jobs after the first and second industrial revolutions.

As automation becomes normalized as a result of technological advancements, “These new drivers of growth created massive shifts in the skills required to contribute to the economy and the ways in which people work, raising questions about the adequacy of current education systems in keeping pace with these changes,” wrote Genesis Elhussein, Till Alexander Leopold, and Saadia Zahidi on behalf of the WEF.

They argued that global citizenship, innovation and creative skills, increased personalization in lessons, problem-based learning, and inclusive education were all areas expected to grow in the years to come.

Building on this, experts argue institutions will have increased awareness around neurodiversity and disability in the future. While previous generations separated out classrooms for diagnosed neurodiverse students with conditions like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, future classrooms may be more inclusive and allow for learning that reaches students at their own pace and needs, according to a 2017 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“There is a growing trend toward all children having the right to mainstream settings if the families so choose (i.e., inclusive education). Families can also consider whether a specialized education setting might suit their child’s needs better,” the OECD wrote. 

But bringing about inclusive and supportive classrooms for all students isn’t a given. According to a 2020 report by the Center for American Progress, policy solutions will need to prioritize addressing the needs of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations to combat dropout rates and increased inequality.

“They will involve the development of ecosystems of schools and local employers to expose teachers, students, and their families to a broad range of careers,” the Center for American Progress wrote of its recommended policy changes. “And they will lead to the creation of local accountability systems that hold schools accountable for this more expansive approach to preparing students for the future.”

While social progress indicates a breaking down of stigma across the board, technology brings students a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges. Students have access to ever-expanding amounts of information—a process that’s both fantastic for spreading ideas (as opposed to knowledge) and can be anxiety-inducing, if not outright harmful, according to researchers.

Education—or lack of access to it—touches every life. As a result, the future of learning in Utah is a lot like the future of society: aligned with changes in technology, deeply connected to social and economic growth, changes in needs, and the growth of communities.

At the same time, it always starts with small changes within classrooms that can address deeper needs and strengthen communities over time. In Utah’s Indigenous community, for example, this has meant slow change that allows for better accommodation for their needs and learning styles.

“The learning process is just a little bit different from the other populations,” he says. “I think they’re understanding that pace. It’s moving very, very slowly, but I think the state has a pretty good idea of how to address that.” 

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.