The one skill grads really need


If you’ve ever remodeled your house, you know that nothing goes as planned.

Last year, bathroom remodelers taking out old shower tile accidentally cut through a pipe (that was installed the wrong way) and flooded our kitchen, directly below.

This year, kitchen remodelers removed old soffits and discovered they were not just decorative — they were hiding bad electrical wiring, as well as some weirdly shaped air vents.

Sitting in the other room, I overheard a lot of discussion about what to do.

Will the new cabinets reach all the way up?

Should we reroute the vent into the ceiling?

We’ll need to cut circular holes through these 2x4s.

Lucky for me, these contractors are problem-solvers, not just builders.

I couldn’t help but compare their ability to troubleshoot, brainstorm solutions, weigh alternatives and execute a plan — without instruction by a supervisor — with my high school students’ inability to do so.

Too often, when our students encounter a barrier or surprise, they give up or expect someone else to fix it.

For example, I assigned my Psych students to watch “Picking Cotton,” a 60 Minutes video about false confessions, not realizing the link on my website was broken. A few students emailed me, letting me know it wasn’t working. Most just didn’t watch it, figuring they would be excused — since it was hardly their fault.

Only one or two realized they could just google the name of the program and find the video for themselves.

Another, more intentional example: After teaching supply and demand, I asked my Micro students some problems like this:

   Demand: P = 21 – Q

   Supply: P = 3 + 2Q

   What is the market equilibrium price and quantity?

They’ve all had algebra, so they know how to draw the lines (or deal with systems of equations). They know that equilibrium is where supply and demand are equal. But I’d never explicitly told them to combine basic algebra with “supply and demand” this way, and about half missed it the first time.

Why? I think it’s because we don’t expect them to reason out problems this way, at least not often enough. We don’t expect them to draw on prior knowledge (from other classes even!) and really think about new approaches and strategies.

We tell them what to do, and we ask them to practice it, but we don’t expect them to “figure it out for themselves.” This needs to change.

If our students were going to work in mid-20th Century factories, then telling them what to do and expecting them to merely follow directions would probably be good enough. But those jobs are being done by robots now.

In nearly every modern work environment — from high tech industries to surgical wards to craft breweries to schools to the construction site in my kitchen — workers need to be flexible problem-solvers. They need to be able to figure things out for themselves and deal with the unexpected.

If we want to prepare our students for the future, we need to start expecting this from them now.


Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Coming in November: Beat Boredom

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