The False Hope of a Standard Path for Our Students…

Get good grades they say. Take Honors and AP classes they say. Go to college they say. Get a good internship they say. Get a good job and work hard so you can climb the ladder they say. I’m not sure they really know what they say…

There is no real standard path for success anymore. Students and adults alike need to understand this reality. Long gone are the days of getting good grades in high school, going to a good college, doing well in college, getting an internship and getting a job straight out of college that you’ll rise up in the ranks and be able to provide for your family and call it a life.

If you don’t believe me, check out the research that has been done on this subject. Or ask a 25-30yr old what it’s been like navigating their schooling and career options. Better yet, ask their parents what it has been like in the past 10 years.

What we have now is a bit of a paradox. Students are forced through a progression in the K-12 space preparing them for the next grade and the next grade and the next grade, so by the time they get to high school they are only focused on what is immediately next…and have a hard time figuring out what they actually want to do with their life.

What Are We Telling Our Students?

So what are we preaching and teaching our students today? Are we telling them that they need to get ready for the next grade? Are we telling them that this will prepare them for their future? Because if all we are doing is preparing students for the next grade, and preparing students for a future that does not yet exist, I think we’re missing the point on education in general.

Education is about teaching students how to learn so when they leave our schools (no matter where their path takes them) they have the ability to think critically, challenge ideas, come up with new solutions, and solve problems regardless of the field they choose to work in (business, education, medical, etc). 

I remembering sitting in my classroom at the end of the day, wondering when the last time was I had a conversation with students about how to learn. When’s last time my unit goals or outcomes were about the learning process and not what students are supposed to understand? When’s the last time I had allowed students to reflect on their own learning experience, to self grade, and self assess what they have done and how they got there?

In John Hattie’s deeply researched book, Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, the number one factor that improves students learning is self-assessment. When students take the time to assess the work they are doing and to think about the process of how they learn and whether or not they have successfully completed what they were doing…they actually learn at a deeper level.

Teaching students to think about learning (and how they’ve come to an understanding) empowers them to think critically in any field. It is a complete role-reversal from the standard path, where students follow the rules, play the game of school, and hope for a reward at the end of their schooling in the form of a job. This type of teaching tells students, “You are in control of what you learn, how you learn, and how you think. The choice of what to do in life is up to you.” That’s the message I want us to send our students.

Following a Non-Traditional Learning Path

My daughter is five years old and I have no idea what life is going to look like for her after she’s finished with school. I do know the traditional standard path to success, and climbing a career ladder will probably not be in the cards for her. I know that the skills she’ll need to succeed in school, in life, and in her career will be skills that you cannot measure on any sort of standardized or multiple-choice test. And often those skills might not be able to be measured by a teacher.

First, she’s going to have to learn how to do things that she necessarily doesn’t want to do in order to be able to do the work she does want to do. They’re going to be many times in her life (just like there are in my life) where the work she’s doing doesn’t necessarily relate to her passions, but in doing that work the end results will allow her to do work that she is very passionate about. Some people call that skill “grit” and others call it perseverance or determination… She’ll have to fight through those tough moments, to do work that is meaningful.

Secondly, she’s going to have to learn how to choose and navigate her own learning path. This is why I’m such a proponent of choice in schools. Our students will have thousands and thousands of choices once they leave our school walls. They will have to navigate those choices and bounce back from the failures to move forward quickly. They’ll have to make choices in their personal lives, in their relationships, in their careers, and the work that they do. If we rarely give students a choice in school, then they will struggle to handle those choices in life.

Thirdly, she’s going to have to be a learner. She’ll have to learn, un-learn, and re-learn over and over again. In our ever-changing world being a true learner is a key to success. She will be trained and retrained on new things throughout her entire life (just like we have). Seeking out those new experiences and being a learner first will always put her in a position to have success.

Fourth,  she’s going to have to understand what it means to be an entrepreneur (hint: everyone will have to become an entrepreneur of sorts). If she wants to be hired for a job that she loves, she’ll have to show her future employers what type of work she’s capable of (not by what grade she got in school), but by work but she “actually did” in and outside of school.

But more likely she’ll have to create her own job. It will hopefully be one that is fueled by her passions and beliefs and interests. One that she can enjoy enough to fight through the tough times, and one that she wants to do because it is meaningful work to her. This does not mean she needs to want to change the world. This means that the most most likely path to success is crafted by you as an individual.

How Can We Help Our Students

With all that being said we’re still left with an issue right now in education. How can we let teachers and parents understand the fact that this standard/traditional path to success is getting less and less likely for all of our students to attain? How can we change schools so that they let our students do real work inside the school walls and begin them on a path where they can make their own choices and develop skills that will help them in their future?

We can start with choice, and we can start with student ownership of their learning experience. It’s why I wrote Innovation and Inquiry in the Classroom and it’s why I am publishing Learning by ChoiceStudents around the world are just like my daughter. They have an incredible opportunity ahead of them. But they are also going to have incredible challenges. Choice in learning gives them that real problem of juggling opportunity and challenge as they learn/create/make something that matters to them.

We can never predict what the future might hold for careers. Just look at me as an example. My last two positions in public education did not exist 15 years ago when I was in high-school. I could have never predicted I would end up in a role like I am right now.

Let’s allow our students to think about their learning process and how they learn. Let’s give them time and freedom to do projects and work that may not tie into “what’s next” in their schooling, but what might be next in their life.

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Hello AJ,
    As we enter the “standardized testing season”, your post is timely, interesting, and essential. My interests lately have included learning more about heutagogy and entrepreneurial learning.
    When we tune in, our bodies tell us when we need to eat, rest, and move. Learners, regardless of age, need to make time to listen and reflect what our minds are telling us. Your writing, I would guess, is an expression of your reflective thought, as well as, a mechanism to share what you are learning. Shouldn’t all learners have the powerful experience of choosing a learning path, and sharing their learning story? Thank you for shining a light on the topic of personal learning, and for providing this learning forum. Bob

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks as always Bob. I really like your thoughts on “entrepreneurial learning” and would love to chat more about it. It is something we are trying to understand at our HS!

  • Hi AJ, yes! This message needs out in all and any ways possible. As the new millennium began I started high school, I worked hard and got the grades and awards… yet I knew it was all empty and nearly quit school a couple of times. The system shattered the confidence of my wonderful peers and friends who were compared to students like me who could do tests. I left uni with a 1st class science degree and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The old model is get to the top, then start at the bottom of a new run. It takes graduates a few years to ‘recover from’ this linear schooling experience. I’m helping graduates recover and I’m helping teachers see ways of working that don’t rely on propagating false promises. I’m looking forward to more of your posts. P.S. I’m UK/EU based… this issue occurs across in many nations with historical schooling systems.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment Leah. Yes this is a global issue and I’m excited to see the work you are doing with graduates! Please stay in touch!

  • Lauralee says:

    This sound so promising and exciting… but in the actual classroom, it’s hard not to get bogged down with everything else. (And I realize that “everything” is a loaded word).

    Would students owning their learning process include small lessons on teaching how people learn? I’m trying to picture incorporation with students.

    • Just a quick reply to Lauralee, if I may. Lauralee, I consult teachers by drawing on the student perspective and I’d like to ask you to think of creating a lesson on ‘how people learn’ as just one more thing for the teacher to get bogged down with. The worst part is that, if you created such mini-lessons, student’s are likely to consider them as just one more thing to learn. Here’s the trick (that get’s you out of doing any detailed planning!);

      I’d bet your students already know what it takes to ‘master’ something. Many of them will have mastered something outside of school and not on the syllabus e.g. a sport, a drawing style, an instrument, telling jokes, a game… What if you set-up a session where students were encouraged to say something they are really good at and then you encourage reflection on why they became good, who influenced them, when they got better and what they did to improve? Then you’ll have a neat class-created blue-print for yourself and your students on how people own their intellectual development and learning. That’s a lesson I wish I’d had in school! It’s one that will serve students beyond the school day and beyond graduation. Hope this helps! Good luck xx

      • Lauralee says:

        I understand your message and I wasn’t considering a huge, notes-intensive “lesson” exactly. For instance, when I teach public speaking, students often get overwhelmed because researching, writing, and giving a speech is labor-intensive. I often show students Bloom’s and explain why public speaking is difficult – it requires higher thinking skills. This isn’t a lesson so much, as it is more of an explanation. Students are relieved and understand.

        I like the visual of a blue-print. Thanks for that!

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