Advice students don’t want to hear

“If a student got 100% in your class by delegating all his tasks/homework and papers to a virtual assistant and spent under $20 for the entire semester, is that bad? … Because in the real world, you are the most efficient employee of all time.”

Will Tjernlund, a former student, posed this question to me last week. My gut reaction was “that’s cheating,” but I wanted to hear him out.

Will graduated high school just seven years ago and is now an e-Commerce consultant who spends his free time traveling the globe. He and his brother sold $6 million worth of products on Amazon in 2014 — you can read about it here — so he knows his stuff.

He also knew that I wouldn’t just accept the premise that outsourcing schoolwork is good.

Our students need to learn something, right?

So I asked him: What exactly is it important to learn in high school?

His response led to a lengthy Skype conversation, after Will had finished running a webinar from Amsterdam. He suggested that once students are 15 or 16, they should be learning new ways to learn, rather than accumulating facts.

“At the end of the day, what’s more helpful — training people, delegating tasks and managing a team of workers, or memorizing facts for a Scantron test?” he asked.

He wasn’t advocating for an easier school experience. Will also suggested students take classes without taking the prerequisites, like taking Spanish 2 without Spanish 1 — but not expecting the teacher to catch them up.

“If you’re learning first what the letters sound like, then what the fruits are… It’s super basic, super linear, a slow pace, not how you’re ever going to learn in the workforce,” he said. “No one is going to give you that baby training. If you start with Spanish 2… it’s up to you to find videos on how to learn Spanish 1. It’s up to you to be creative, find books and resources, do what works best for you.”

Will also suggested that teachers should make assignments more challenging on purpose. He doesn’t recall any time that a high school teacher or college professor (at University of Minnesota, Duluth) pushed him to solve challenging problems on his own.

“If you’re looking to just have a job where you clock in and out, then you’re probably going to want to be educated in kind of a different (more traditional) way,” he said. “If you want a creative job and more freedom, you’re going to have to learn problem solving in general and connecting the dots rather than putting things in a row.”

This is not a choice without consequences, however. “It’s not looking good for people who want the simple jobs that are very linear and process driven,” he said.

But what about grades? What about resumes and transcripts and college applications? Wouldn’t this unconventional approach doom our students?

That’s all part of the linear path Will is questioning. The future he envisions is one where your value is based what you can do now, rather than what you did in school. No one will be impressed by a static GPA if you don’t know your stuff.

“People are hiring you for you,” he explained. “The person that you are is really going to matter. If people aren’t building skills to make themselves marketable as a person, the future is not looking bright for them.”

I still don’t believe that outsourcing your homework would make you the best student of all time, but I do think Will raises important questions about the value of what we are teaching and learning. Students are investing so much time memorizing facts to earn grades, when we could be using that time to help them learn to learn, investigate, question, communicate and yes — manage and delegate.

If we want to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow, we should listen to advice from people who are creating them now.

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