What can they do besides ‘school’?


One of my favorite lines in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? is when he points out that schools are really really good at preparing students to become professors. And, I would add, teachers.

Academia is nothing if not self-perpetuating.

We teach students to write papers and lab reports in styles that professors will value; to memorize scientific principles and mathematical theorems that they can apply to abstract academic problems; and to memorize a simple legislative process that exists only in textbooks.

We value what we do, so we pass it on.

This creates a host of problems, including:

  • Many students don’t see why learning any of this stuff matters
  • Most students won’t become professors or teachers
  • Graduates leave our schools not knowing what else they could do with their lives

Worst of all, it creates a kind of existential crisis for many teens and young adults, who feel like they must go to college if they want to be “successful” but have only a vague idea of what success would mean for them — and no real interest in studying more.

Welcome to the real student debt crisis: the students who drop out of college with thousands in loans, no diploma, no passion for any vocation, and no clue what to do next. Only 46 percent of Americans who start college actually graduate, according to the OECD.

If you ask a typical high school student what jobs they are aware of, they’ll come up with a list like this: teacher, police officer, military, sales clerk, construction worker, waiter, chef, doctor, lawyer, banker, Uber driver, maybe software coder, and whatever jobs their parents have.

It’s frighteningly limited.

What about: glass blower, screenwriter, dog trainer, home stager, fashion designer, outdoor adventure leader, entrepreneur, cabinet maker, astronaut nutrition specialist, translator, Amazon reseller, video game designer, craft brewer, resource mapper, food tour operator, trauma nurse, professional speaker, and sea lion trainer?

I know people who have all of these jobs, some of them my former students. They seem to like their jobs — and some of them are also very highly paid.

How can we open students’ minds to these possibilities (and many more), in a system that values “common” education and college for all?

One example is offered by Finland, which has a world-renowned education system.

I was startled to learn, from a colleague at this week’s Reimagine Education conference, that more than 50% of Finnish 14-year-olds are now choosing their country’s Vocational Education Training over traditional high school.

They are rejecting the college-bound path we hold so dear.

Finnish vocational programs (which are currently being revised) include hands-on training in hundreds of fields, including: forestry, landscaping, automotive engineering, graphic design, 3D printing, circus arts (!), shoemaking and aviation.

There’s no stigma attached; it’s not a “second choice.”

Can you imagine how much anxiety and frustration we could alleviate if our high school students could actually choose to pursue their interest in school, knowing it would lead to an apprenticeship and a job?

The biggest danger in emulating this system is that we, as a much more diverse and divided society, would likely track students, so that lower-income, nonwhite students would be disproportionately steered toward non-college options, whether or not that was their desire.

It already happens — I’ve heard from many African-American friends that they were told they weren’t “college material,” even though they clearly were.

The key is to find a way to let students figure out what they want, without social pressures and biases pushing them toward or away from the college path.

But that’s much easier said than done. So what can we do?

At the very least, we need to talk to our teenagers about all of their options and help them see that there are great career pathways outside the purely academic one. We need to help them envision where they fit in the world, with their unique set of talents and preferences.

We need to keep the college pathway equitable open to all — but we need to stop making it the only socially acceptable alternative.

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