Happy Cinco de Mayo!
Part II of “Why to How”
We left off last week with the idea that high school probably has some purpose related to kids growing up and becoming adults, and that becoming an adult means (in addition to the obvious physical maturation), that one can be socially and economically independent from their parents (at least in theory) and has some identity of themselves as a person.
So, our next question is, how does this growing up process occur? What do kids need in order to be able to do it? If you think about very young children, who needed to learn to walk, and talk, and about a million other things, you see they learn by experimenting. They try – over, and over, again – until they persevere in working out exactly the way to hold their bodies to take a step, or arrange their lips and tongue to form a word.
Teenagers actually do the same thing with respect to figuring out who they are, and how they can take care of themselves. When a teen suddenly changes his hair, or clothes, or even hobbies – it’s a social experiment. (And it’s not personal, parents – YOU have forged this child’s identity up to this point, because of all the choices you’ve made for him before he was old enough to choose for himself. That’s not a bad thing, that’s just reality. And so, in order to move beyond an identity of being “your child” – to figure out his own, independent identity – the first and most obvious personality to try out is whatever is NOT you. Sorry…)
What about social and economic independence? While teens may not reach this stage at 18, they certainly must begin to chart a course towards it. So, somehow, they need to figure out what that course might be. What do I want to do for work? How do I get there? Can I take care of myself, now and in the future? Do I understand how the structures and organizations of the adult world work – how to open a bank account, or register to vote? Can I get along with other people? There’s some set of knowledge and skills that are important – both in practical living, and as preparation to engage in both civil society and the working world.
I will leave you with a compliment, and a harsh assessment. My compliment is that most schools are doing a decent and improving job with helping students gain the knowledge and skills they need in life. The canon of knowledge that is expected is becoming ever-more practical and meaningful, expecting more thinking and less memorizing, and schools are following suit in their instructional practices. Schools and community organizations are also trying to include practical life skills, like personal finance. That’s all good. My harsh assessment is this: schools are utterly ignoring the negative effect they are having on the development of students’ identities. Why do I claim this? Because developmentally, these teenagers are experimenting. If they experiment with different ways of being and living, different ways of acting, thinking, and communicating, against the artificial environment of a traditional school, they are failing to get any meaningful feedback. Worse, they are getting contrary feedback. For example, if a student tries on an obedient personality of following instructions exactly and trusting in the wisdom of their teacher, they will receive positive feedback in the school environment. Now, what happens when that student enters the workplace, and discovers their boss can’t tell them how to do their job? That the problems they need to solve don’t have just one right answer? That having the boss’s approval isn’t nearly enough to be successful, and that they need to consider the impact and opinions of many other stakeholders? Now, in the higher stakes “real world”, he’s got to take that new feedback in and try to readjust who he is, in order to be successful in this new environment.
Just as babies can’t learn to walk if they are immobilized in artificial devices like walkers, teenagers can’t learn how to be adults if they are immobilized by their school environments. I believe that’s why today, so many feel that young people don’t really grow up until they go to college, or after. It’s not that they are too young in years, it’s that we’re preventing them from engaging in those meaningful, real experiences that allow them to discover themselves, and their abilities.
So how would you design a school that recognizes and supports these natural processes? More next week.
More next week… the above ran WAY longer than I intended. Thanks for humoring my philosophical essay – I promise I’ll keep it shorter next week!
Thanks for reading!