How do we prepare students across multiple settings for a future that does not yet exist?


Now more than ever, students will rely on an ever-evolving skill set to be successful after their schooling.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker has ten different jobs before they turn 40, and this will continue to grow. Perhaps even more important, many of the careers current students will pursue do not yet exist and will require technology that hasn’t yet been invented. This makes redefining the skills students develop in school incredibly important to ensure that they have what it takes to be successful in the future.


To prepare students for a future that does not yet exist, educators are called upon to teach students how to make transitions and navigate options as they map their futures. Creating a thoughtful graduate profile that not only focuses on academic content, but also prioritizes new “skills for success” is a  clear way to keep the important work at the forefront of planning every day. Some of these “new skills for success,” such as collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, are already common in the world of education. Students will also need agency, self-directed learning, and wayfinding skills to navigate the changing landscape of jobs and life, and it is essential to include them in an updated graduate profile.


  • DO NOW: Understand what skills matter most for students’ futures and the research indicating what students need. Among many, three skills stand to uniquely affect student achievement in their futures: wayfinding, student agency, and self-directed learning. 
  • DO NEXT: Develop a clear learner profile and north star to assure you are intentionally working towards new outcomes. This graduate profile will guide your work and goal-setting throughout the year.


The NGLC MyWays Student Success Framework is a good place to start when considering what new skills students will need. The framework consists of 20 competencies that include practiced habits, transferable skills, and applied knowledge that will help students succeed amid changes in the labor market, postsecondary sector, and social capital arena. You can read about them, their impact, and their relevance in education in this recent report

A good place to start is to focus on designing systems that help students develop three key skills: wayfinding, self-directed learning, and agency. Wayfinding prepares students to navigate options and opportunities as they present themselves. Self-directed learning helps students establish and persevere through goals and plans. Agency empowers students to advocate for self during different circumstances. 

Wayfinding Skills

Wayfinding skills enable students to build social capital, find the right postsecondary options, and build careers in the absence of yesterday’s linear education-to-work paths. As this NGLC resource explains, “Today, young people need to navigate multiple options and excel at making numerous transitions. Wayfinding is essentially a process—a navigation process—[that draws] on knowledge, skills, habits, and behaviors that help students drive their own life decisions. In essence, wayfinding abilities prepare students to project-manage their lives and get things done.”

Educators in all subjects and at all grade levels can support students in developing these competencies. NGLC suggests educators focus on helping students learn to:

  • Identify opportunities and set goals…. Goal-setting should be personalized and self-directed, reflecting students’ strengths, interests, and long-term goals, as well as the interim steps to reach them….
  • Design and iterate prototype experiences…. To support young people as they transition from student to adult, educators in many next gen learning models design authentic projects and connect learners with real-world experiences like internships….
  • Find needed help and resources…. 
    • This competency requires students to cultivate a help-seeking mindset and to reach out to adults, something young people often find difficult to do on their own…. 
    • Educators engaged in equity by design create learning experiences that intentionally develop students’ social capital [to offset equity gaps in students’ networks of support]…. 
  • Navigate each stage of the journey…. To cultivate students’ ability to take risks, reframe, and change direction, [create opportunities] in which students achieve success by trying, failing, and iterating in calculated and reflective ways.”

Student Agency

When young people develop agency over their actions and choices, they begin to identify their purpose and passions in life. Speaking up about their preferences and desires leads them to more engaged and productive learning. Agency has also been identified as a key skill to increase equity and long-term success for students who are members of historically disadvantaged populations. In fact, agency and equity seem to be entwined; when you increase agency, you increase equity.  


  1. Emphasize reflection and ownership. Teachers can foster ownership by providing students space to decide how they will reach certain outcomes and build a habit of reflection in the course of units to look back at what decisions have worked and which choices were counterproductive  For more information, see the fourth section of Education Elements’ whitepaper “The Core Four of Personalized Learning.” 
  2. Promote a mindset that honors agency. Encourage creation and deep engagement rather than content delivery and products for both teachers and students.
  3. Give opportunities for students and teachers to co-construct their learning.
  4. Authentically share learning: When learners have an authentic audience (rather than just creating content or doing work for a grade) they are more invested. Use social media, community connections, and organizational ties to invite an audience to share in  school performances, exhibitions, classroom walkthroughs and more. 
  5. Invest in relationships: Building trust person by person allows for the vulnerability needed when working towards agency. Relationships are the foundation of deep learning and here are some tools for building relationships.
  6. Celebrate diversity: Help everyone in the organization to understand their unique strengths, ask more questions, and pursue their goals to chart personal paths. For more on the connection between identity and agency, see Brooklyn Lab School’s Back to School Learner Identity and Agency Guidebook.

Self-Directed Learning 

Learning independently can be challenging, even for the brightest and most motivated students. However, it has never been more important to develop this ability than today.  The ability to be a self-directed learner has been a major differentiator of success in distance learning, highlighting the need to develop skills like goal-setting, researching, progress monitoring, self-management, and communication, to name a few. (Read this report by the Learning Accelerator for more information.) 


  1. Start with self-assessment. Students need a variety of skills, habits and attitudes toward learning for successful self-directed learning. Teachers should prompt students to examine their learning habits and practices with an eye on what they need to be successful. 
  2. Have clear expectations and learning goals. Design these expectations and goals with the team and communicate them clearly to students and parents. Here are some  strategies to help.
  3. Explicitly teach of systems and norms. Learners need to be explicitly taught self-direction and how to navigate their own learning, especially once they finish a task and are ready for the next. Particularly during remote learning scenarios, learners need tools, routines, and resources to be independent learners
  4. Design the day for self-directed work. For example, create maker spaces, “genius hours” when they can have access to experts, or independent study courses to encourage students’ self-direction. 
  5. Create organizationwide guides, supports, and cues to help remind students of goals, procedure, priorities, logistics, and choices. 
  6. Simplify routines. Reduce cognitive load for navigating tools. Simplifying what needs to be done and making it less overwhelming goes a long way to helping increase comprehension and performance. 
  7. Use blended learning to allow students some ability to co-create path, pace, and place. Blended learning can be extremely effective when done well, creating more opportunities for targeted instruction and practice of skills, concepts, or ideas that students can work on independently.
  8. Use competency-based learning. In competency-based learning, students progress based on demonstrated mastery. Using a competency-based approach allows students to tackle skills that they need to work on and move at their own pace.
  9. Encourage inquiry-based learning. Encourage students to begin learning with deep questions—designing the project, creating the process, producing a product of real value, and reflecting on the work.

Graduate Profile

Creating a  graduate profile helps to redefine success in school by aligning instruction and experiences to  desired outcomes.  This profile helps focus the community on a core set of learning goals that will impact professional development, budget, and organizational decision making. The graduate profile is an organizational north star.


  1. Assemble a team. Form an inclusive and representative advisory group, including students, teachers, parents, administrators, and representatives from the broader community. Engage the team in thinking about what they want to see in schools and in classrooms
  2. Understand the desired outcomes and align learning experiences to those outcomes. Generate an overall goal of identifying the crucial competencies necessary for success in life, work, and society. Use the Superintendent Guide for Creating a Portrait of a Graduate to get started. It is important to first understand the outcomes—what you want students to know and be able to do.
  3. Draft and refine your profile. Using the expertise of the inclusive team, draft several versions of the profile. Seek feedback from people outside of the team, review other profiles for ideas, and refine your work. 
  4. Create visuals. Create a couple of visuals about the profile to communicate to students, parents, and community.
  5. Promote the profile. Share the graduate profile widely, including with local government, municipalities, community organizations, and other places that might be interested in this work. Ask these entities for their review, encouragement. They can be incredible allies and partners.
  6. Shift strategic planning to build these skills. Create a targeted plan for building these skills. Align all subsequent strategic planning and transformation efforts with the capacities identified in the graduate profile. It will be important to build support for any new vision for learning and goals for the future.

Featured Tools


  •  What are the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that your community has for students?
  • What are the most important skills and mindsets that our children need for success in this complex and rapidly changing world?
  • Based on these skills and mindsets, what are the implications for the design of the learning experiences—and equitable access to those experiences—we provide in our school system?
  • What evidence do we have or do we need to understand  what knowledge, mindsets, and skills students leave with when they graduate?
  • How are we working to provide meaningful experiences that develop the whole child—the hearts, the minds, and the souls of the young people we serve?
  • How are we talking about success? Do we talk about success in dynamic ways that aren’t solely based on academic-focused tests and measures?