Students Are So Much More Than Empty Vessels to Fill
Updated: Jul 24
Every student possesses the most remarkable natural resource on the planet – a human brain – with unbounded capacity for imagination, creativity, and empathy. We’ll do almost anything to squeeze value out of naturally non-renewable resources like oil, gold, fish, lumber – but we fail to optimize the most amazing, expandable, renewable natural resource of all.
Children still have fully intact, engagable imaginations. They haven’t yet accepted the artificial boundaries of convention, convenience, or inertia to which most adults have surrendered. Every child has the potential for prodigious accomplishments in art, music, science, civil rights, medicine, teaching, sports, politics, child or elder care - in fact, in anything they care deeply enough about. Caring and curiosity are prerequisites for genuine, deep, lasting, lifelong learning.
The education system is designed to prepare kids for exams and the next level of education, instead of preparing them for success in the real world beyond school.
Traditional K-12 curricula don’t care what students care about. Students won’t be considered fully qualified to know what they need to know or should care about until the age they can fight and die for their country, or later.
Shallow, short-term, rote learning satisfies the test results by which education systems measure student success. This denies society the full benefits of the limitless creativity and vast potential talent of young people. Education leaders insist, sincerely and unanimously, that their core mission is student success. Yet few can imagine the potential for world-changing accomplishments that lies dormant in every student’s brain and which, sadly, will wither and die if not nurtured.
Furthermore, we’re burying the next generation in debt while forfeiting its talent. U.S. student loan debt has now surpassed $1.5 trillion. That’s three times more than credit card at $450B, and more than all other forms of debt except mortgages. And six of ten students who start a public or private college program in the U.S. will not have a degree after six years.
They have lost precious years without getting closer to discovering career pathways and organizations that need their unique skills, strengths, passion, and potential. They got the debt without getting a sense of direction and purpose, the social, emotional, and financial management skills, the character and grit they need to launch in a career that gives them happiness, fulfillment, and a good return on their investment of time, energy, hope, and money.
Too many graduates, let alone drop-outs, land in low-paying, low-security, low-benefits jobs unrelated to their interests, skills, or studies - or worse, no job. Many are demoralized, often to the point of depression, trying to imagine how they’ll pay off their loans and get out of their parents’ basements to lead a happy, fulfilling, proud, and independent adult life.
The education system is designed to prepare kids for exams and the next level of education, instead of preparing them for success in the real world beyond school. 80% of students are emotionally engaged in primary school, but that number plummets year after year to between 30% and 40% by high school. Why? Because students seldom get an answer that satisfies them to the question, “Why do I need to learn this?
Recent advances in neuroscience tell us that for learning to be meaningful and ‘stick’ it must be emotionally relevant and personal. Acknowledging and encouraging kids’ dreams about their own future roles, however transient, fanciful, or unreachable they may seem to adults, makes school personal for students and helps unlock their creativity.
Helping students discover their “WHY?” early on, is key to setting them on the path to success, in education, work, and life. This means helping them discover issues to which they want to commit their lives. We need to grow the unique strengths and sense of agency of each student, not force-feed them all predetermined, age-based, arbitrary subject-matter that often has the effect of creating stress while crushing curiosity and passion for learning. Great teachers nurture the seeds of creativity and idealism that lie dormant in every young person, waiting to be triggered by the right conditions, just like the seed of a majestic oak tree.
This doesn’t require discarding current curricula. It does mean that learning objectives and measures of success must be contextualized in real-world issues that need solving and students care deeply about. We need to fully engage those young brains to solve real, pressing issues, like creating a movement to re-imagine education. This requires not only genuinely, respectfully hearing their voices. It requires actually acceding to them real power, as scary as that my seem. After all, nobody has a greater stake than they do in the outcome, and they still have the creativity and courage to imagine solutions adults may consider too difficult or inconvenient, or simply can’t even imagine anymore.
Helping students discover their “WHY?” early on, is key to setting them on the path to success, in education, work, and life.
One Stone is a nonprofit, tuition-free school in Boise, Idaho run by students. When I learned what Jon Long was up to with One Stone and Teach for America, and watched his films Skool and Rise, I immediately reached out to him. We’ve been stoking each other’s excitement, since. I’ve been involved in countless events about reimagining education with educators over decades, but little seems to change. Giving real power to adolescents could be the catalyst needed to produce transformative change.