Saturday, May 14, 2016

What's high school for?

In May of 2011, Seth Godin asked: What's high school for?

"Perhaps we could endeavor to teach our future the following:
  1. How to focus intently on a problem until it's solved.
  2. The benefit of postponing short-term satisfaction in exchange for long-term success.
  3. How to read critically.
  4. The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority.
  5. An understanding of the extraordinary power of the scientific method, in just about any situation or endeavor.
  6. How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.
  7. Project management. Self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people.
  8. Personal finance. Understanding the truth about money and debt and leverage.
  9. An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever.
  10. Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving.

Not a bad list, I suppose.  Goals, if you will. They're good goals, obviously, but if the Internet is any evidence, very little of this seems to be necessary to survive in America as an adult. To thrive is another matter.

You can make the case for each of these being necessary in the RealWorldtm, but how many am I responsible for and can they be taught? How many should a high school graduate be proficient at before setting off and can we as educators stop them if they haven't demonstrated each one?

The first one. "Focus intently".  Exactly how do I teach that except by setting consequences for not focusing intently enough, or for not solving a problem quickly enough? That seems wrong. Too many kids will quit under the pressure. We can talk "grit" all we want. We can add this into our ever-expanding list of "Transferable Skills" and demand proficiency. We can bluster and pontificate but the student who falls short through ADHD or a conflict with a teacher ...

Postponing short-term satisfaction for long-term gain is a laudable trait. Pretending to teach it and measure it is unworkable. This will be a "Yeah, check that box and move on" situation. I can see the rubric now:
Proficient with distinction: "Held off eating the marshmallow for thirty minutes before succumbing."
"Reading critically" is a phrase that sounds intelligent but falls short in practice. You cannot teach students how to read critically. You can tell them of tricks to reading but that stops being productive quickly. High school kids CAN read; what they need is the background knowledge and worldly experience to be able to tell which parts of that text are bullshit.  They need extensive science courses to refute the VERY compelling counter-arguments. It's difficult to counter anti-vaxxers, for example, if you don't understand biology, chemistry, and probability and statistics. It's difficult to convince them if you haven't got a good handle on psychology, too. Fools are so damned good at being fools.

Being able to "lead". I like that one. Expecting every teenager to lead, or even work collaboratively with peers, is a fool's mission though.  Few kids are competent at what they do - that's why they are learning. As I've said before, learning is not the time for collaboration. Working with already learned information is the time collaboration can happen. Beyond collaboration, leading, is not for every kid.

Understanding the scientific method is why we have them take science. Not my fault if Organized Religion seems to be actively fighting that every step of the way.

Understanding this leads to
understanding self-management.
Multiple-form presentation - definitely. First, though, the kid needs to know those various methods and know all the things he wants to talk about. That's why we teach them Foreign Languages, English, Science, History, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (FLESH TEAMS).

Project management - how much of this should we leave until after the foundation work is done? Science Fair is a great example of this. Give them the background, then have them experiment. I'm totally for doing science fair -- I think the parents do a wonderful job with those boards.

The expectation of universal self-management is a pipe dream for teenagers. There's a reason they're not allowed to rent a car, smoke cigarettes, take a pill without supervision, ... the works. They're learning self-management. College kids don't even have it yet. Hell, many adults don't have it yet. How much of society do you expect me to solve here?

Ah, yes. Consumer skills. Personal finance. The "Truth" about money. Kids know how many things work - and don't care about the rest yet. They get the idea of "I earn money. I save money. I spend it on rebuilding that 1959 Studebaker." Whenever my admin talks about "Consumer Skills", it's usually a stupid reaction to "Kids can't write a check" or "Look at the College Debt Crisis -- We need to teach them how to avoid that!"  I'm here to tell you they aren't that stupid ... and nobody understands how to make a amortization schedule, not even the bankers. 

"Life-long learner." What a meaningless cliché. All that aside, how exactly does one tell if a student is a life-long learner if he's only just beginning his life? Is that diploma retractable? Do we call him up in 30 years and send a repo squad for it if he hasn't learned something in the last ten weeks?

"Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving."  Bottom line, looking at every graduate I've shaken hands with as they walked back down the aisle,
If you give them a problem they NEED to solve, they'll be just fine.
I look at this list, and many like it, and I shudder when I think of the teachers who will be pushed into focusing on this at the expense of teaching content. You can't think critically without knowing something to think about. You can't teach many of these non-measurable skills (which doesn't make them unimportant) but unless you stop expecting teachers to measure the unmeasurable in order to provide accountability to those who have no idea what schools are supposed to do, you're only perpetuating the problems we face.

End of Rant. Thanks for reading.

I've got to get back to work.


  1. My students ask me why I want them to do most of your list. I always have the same response - for the sheer joy of knowledge and learning, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

  2. Best line ever: "If you give them a problem they NEED to solve, they'll be just fine." It's funny how resourceful people get and how much forgotten information they can recall when they really need to.