REIMAGINING EDUCATION THROUGH A LIFE-READINESS LENS
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Pre-pandemic, two in five school leavers, even those with degrees, failed to transition smoothly from school to a good job. Many began their career unemployed or in a precarious, low-wage, no benefits job unrelated to their studies and interests, with a sinking feeling that they were led astray and were not ready for life beyond school. Those who graduate into underemployment are five times more likely to remain stuck in mismatched jobs after five years compared with those who start in a college-level job. Ten years later, three-quarters of workers underemployed at the five-year mark have not progressed. Many worry that they may never find a ‘good’ job, pay down student debt, buy a house, a car, or build a family and the life their parents and society expect them to. Those now in their first year beyond school are facing even more COVID-19 inflicted danger, difficulty, and disappointment.
Failure to launch from school to a good career is usually regarded as a personal failing, one brought about by a lack of self-discipline, poor planning, or an overall sense of entitlement. In most cases, the cause is inadequate life-readiness. Life-ready students leave high school with a sense of direction and purpose, and the confidence, grit, and perseverance to achieve their goals equipped with self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, decision making, and interpersonal competencies.
Failure to graduate life-ready students is a societal issue, and it impacts all of us. The solution is a re-imagined education system that produces graduates who step confidently and purposefully from high school to post-secondary studies, employment, and other life roles. To achieve this, schools must not only be for students, but about them, and by them, guided by liberated teachers and administrators.
Pre-school children often role-play adults, nurturing dolls, driving fire trucks, superheroing, nursing, etc. In school, they are admonished to stop daydreaming and focus on the day’s prescribed learning objectives. But dreams are the fuel of creative brains and an essential form of planning. Recent advances in neuroscience tell us that for learning to be meaningful and retained, it must be emotionally relevant and personal. Acknowledging and encouraging kids’ dreams about future career and life roles, however transient, fanciful, or unattainable they may seem to adults, makes school personal and unlocks students’ creativity.
Why is creativity important? With artificial intelligence, smart machines, and robots replacing humans in predictable, repetitive tasks, the uniquely human capacities for imagination, empathy, creativity, social and emotional intelligence, are final frontiers for humans. Creativity is the lifeblood of an innovative society. It is a natural, expandable, and renewable resource. “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Adolescent minds have the innocence, naiveté, curiosity, emotional and social drive to imagine and explore solutions beyond the imaginations of adults that can transform communities and may even save our planet.
Rather than nurturing creativity, dogged adherence to curriculum stifles it. Nearly eighty percent of primary students are emotionally and intellectually engaged in school. By high school, engagement in academics plummets to under forty percent. Without personal context, not many students see personal relevance in factoring polynomials or memorizing Shakespeare. Most eventually give up asking why they must learn the curriculum and, on faith but without heart, do their best to live up to their teachers’ and parents’ expectations. Among those whose engagement wanes most are students with high creative and entrepreneurial potential - our future job and wealth creators.
When the curriculum addresses students’ dreams, it becomes personally relevant. Imagine a student who wants to make wealth distribution more equitable. Teaching her the power of algebra in this context becomes extremely meaningful to her. Imagine connecting an aspiring writer with some of history’s most influential storytellers. When learning is connected to student’s dreams, engagement, motivation, and creativity flourish.
Students have years to decide if teaching is their calling. They have few role models and rare opportunities to learn about other career paths. In the absence of more viable career navigation clues, they make postsecondary program choices based largely on academic subject preferences. But the rigid, timeless taxonomy of academic subject silos bears scant resemblance to the diversity, complexity, promise, and chaos of change in work and life roles beyond school.
Most students are in classrooms from primary school until they enter the workforce. But school is designed to prepare them for university, not the workforce or life. Students receive persistent cues from teachers, counsellors, and parents not to settle for anything ‘less than’ university. This well-intentioned advice is based on deeply ingrained but increasingly flawed perceptions of the relationship between lifetime earnings, status, lifestyle, and job satisfaction. It leaves many young adults in debt and no closer to a ‘good’ job. Many university grads eventually return to community college, vocational school, or apprenticeships to earn credentials that open doors to good, in demand jobs.
If K-12 students get career development, it is usually in the form of periodic self-assessments of interests, personality type, or values (with minimal interpretation or follow-up), or résumé preparation. Career development is not point-in-time decision-making to choose one’s path for life. It is a lifelong collaborative learning quest, supported by coaches, loved ones, friends, and allies, to construct our best possible future. It is a quest to be the most and happiest we can be while being ready to adapt to the good and bad that blind-side us throughout life. The best preparation for a great career, and life, is a collaborative, project-based school system that graduates genuinely life-ready young adults.
Until we experience work environments first-hand and meet people doing what we imagine ourselves doing in the future, our career decisions are speculative and largely uninformed. Too many students succumb to pressure to declare an arbitrary major then regret, after amassing debt and investing precious months or years, their choice. Collaborative, community-based experiential learning projects starting in pre-school, in conjunction with job shadows, internships, co-op placements, apprenticeships, trainingships, part-time and summer jobs, and volunteering help students develop real-world knowledge, skills, and attitudes (character), and acquire relevant experience that informs their learning, career, and life decisions.
Exams are non-collaborative projects imbued with stress and fear. Fear of failure or embarrassment compels rote learning but impedes authentic learning and brain development. On the other hand, positive brain states in supportive, friendly, and cooperative groups increase memory retention along with pleasure, motivation, perseverance through challenges, and resilience to setbacks. In most cases, the only genuinely collaborative school activities are extracurricular, and they not graded. With academics it is every student for themselves at test time. Traditional teachers see their classroom as their fiefdom, avoiding, if they can, collaboration with other teachers, let alone students and parents.
Happiness and fulfillment depend on successfully balancing many concurrent collaborative projects (partnerships, parenting, working, playing, meaning-making). To prepare students for a lifetime of collaborative projects, public education should be framed in projects and real-life themes, not subjects. The focus should be on real-world issues students genuinely want to help solve in concert with other students and community partners of diverse ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and viewpoints. Fully engaged students’ brains master academics sooner and better. They also become proficient with the “soft skills” they will need as adults. Armed with these competencies, and with confidence and purpose, students can become “solutioneers,” helping solve real and pressing problems in their family, community, and in our troubled world, now and in the future.
In a post-humous blog post entitled Rehearsing the Future, H B Gelatt says, "The future hasn’t happened and it never will. Once it arrives it becomes the present and then the past. However, I believe it is possible to say that your image of your future, before it happens, is a very important factor in determining what it will be when it happens. What you do now makes a difference in your future. Doing nothing also makes a difference. What you do and don’t do counts; and it depends on what you believe." Collaborative, project-based learning is doing something meaningful now and, as H B says and I firmly believe, rehearsing for the future.
We will have ‘arrived’ at an education system reimagined through a career development lens when essential elements of traditional academic curriculum have been absorbed into collaborative learning projects and school is one engaging, challenging, meaningful, supportive, collaborative learning project after another. If aspects of the curriculum do not ‘fit’ in the context of real-world issues students care about, they should be discarded. Those with a personal interest can delve into them when and if it suits them. If they are only in the curriculum as a prerequisite to a university program most students will never attend, they should be addressed in collaborative, community-based, learning projects at university.
Students can learn everything they need to be ready for post-secondary, employment, and adult life through projects addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These are the ‘big ideas’ the entire world needs to address urgently. The 17 goals, 169 targets, and 247 indicators are applicable anywhere. Educators, from pre-school to university can design learning projects around them. They connect their learning teams to others focused on the same issues anywhere in the world. Exceptional learning materials on the goals, including engaging lesson plans, videos, and suggested projects, are available free at The World’s Largest Lesson.
An education system thus reimagined will have career development (aka life-readiness) as its raison d’être. For more see The 4th R: Life Readiness.
 https://cica.org.au/wp-content/uploads/School-to-Work-Transitions-A-Scoping-Review-FINAL.pdf  The Crisis of Unemployed College Graduates – Wall Street Journal, Feb 4, 2021  https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/failure-to-launch/  https://www.redefiningready.org/life-ready  Sir Ken Robinson  https://www.edweek.org/leadership/gallup-student-poll-finds-engagement-in-school-dropping-by-grade-level/2016/03  https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-much-does-stress-affect-learning/2011/06/08/AGJCtrNH_blog.html?utm_term=.0b2fe2a1048a  https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3555  https://sdgs.un.org/goals  https://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/