How are we preparing students for the outside world?

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I’ve always loved learning, but I really, really hated school. I hated having to sit still and be quiet and listen instead of moving around and discussing things. I hated the fact that we had to learn whatever the schedule said, so I couldn’t follow a chain of interest that might lead in other directions.

The problem wasn’t my teachers. I had some great ones. And the problem wasn’t the subject matter, it was fascinating. It was school and the way it worked that bugged me. One result was that I had an underwhelming academic record in high school. It wasn’t until the Marine Corps flipped my excellence switch that I learned to channel my energy into getting the school part right, even if I didn’t like it.

Even today, I look back on school and the way it was structured and wonder about all the things that we learned that turned out not to be so when we got to the outside world. Here are a few of them.

In school, there was always one right answer, and the authority figure at the front of the room knew what it was. It was up to you to figure it out or remember it. In the outside world, there often is no right answer, other times there are lots of right answers, and still other times there are lots of partially right answers.

In school, things were right or wrong. In the outside world, there are a lot of gray areas and a lot of in-between. And sometimes, it’s not right or wrong but a question of trade-offs.

School was all about individual achievement. In my entire school career, every grade was for individual achievement. When I got into the outside world, I discovered that most good work is done in teams and collaboration is a key skill. In the outside world, you often help people understand things and help each other succeed. In school, that’s called cheating.

In school, you learned from the teacher and you learned from books. Outside of school, an awful lot of learning is from each other. Other times we learn things by trying them out and learning from our experience.

In school, everything was divided into subject areas. There was a period for history and a period for literature and a period for math and a period to exercise in gym. In the outside world, everything is jumbled together. Subjects are connected, not compartmentalized.

School is about the knowledge component and the learning seemed to always happen in a straight line. First, we learned this and tomorrow we learned the next thing in the chain. In the outside world, learning is most often an iterative process. We get it partially right, and the next time we do it better, and we use what we’ve learned to do it better the next time and so on.

Tests were a key measure of achievement in school. That was great for me because I was maze-bright when it came to standardized tests. In the outside world, there are no multiple-choice tests. You’re graded based on what you can do with what you know.

In school, the curriculum was set. In fact, we knew pretty much what we were going to study in different subject areas on any given day if we had access to the lesson plans. But in the outside world, things are different. There, you make up your own curriculum as you go along and change it as you need to.

It’s tempting to talk about school and “the real world.” But school is the real world. It’s just a different real world from the one you discover when you get out.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, school hasn’t changed much in the fifty years since I graduated from high school. My children and now my grandchildren are attending schools that are a lot like the ones I attended. They’re great for turning out factory workers. But we don’t need that kind of factory workers anymore.

We need to give students the tools and attitudes they need to succeed in the century ahead. They need to learn how to learn and they need to be encouraged to try things. They need to learn to work in teams and confront challenges with no easy answers. They need to learn about trade-offs and how to connect the dots.

I have two grandchildren who haven’t started school yet. Even if they got an education fit for a knowledge worker, it will be two full decades before they graduate from high school. That scares me to death.

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