Watching your child leave for their first day of school is an emotional moment for parents. My mom still has the picture of me leaving for kindergarten displayed in the kitchen. The experience of passing the torch of knowledge from parent to teacher is incredibly tough. With such an enormous transfer of responsibility to an external, unknown force, it is important that we ask ourselves the right questions: Why do we send our children to school?
This question is coming to light now more than ever, particularly in the context of higher education. University is seen by both students and employers as a place to learn the skills you need so that you can follow the career path that you want. But with increasing access to free information, with the constant conversation about employment, underemployment, and the notorious "skills gap", universities are being put under the microscope. In a recent study by The Chronicle, nearly one-third of employers gave colleges "fair" or "poor" ratings for their ability to produce successful employees. Perhaps more than ever before, the role of universities is being questioned. It is being questioned by employers, deciding who to hire; by students, deciding where to apply; and by the parents supporting their children through school, asking themselves if it is the right investment. And at the core of all of these questions, one is consistent: What is the purpose of higher education?
We need to bring the question up even earlier: What is the purpose of education at all? Asking the question earlier does not change the answer. And yet somehow, when parents send their children off to school at the age of five, most of them aren't thinking of kindergarten class in terms of career preparation. They think of early education as a place to shape children into citizens of the world: responsible and law-abiding members of society. This belief isn't without merit. But whether it's first grade or freshman year, the true nature of education is to help prepare every student for their next step in life beyond school.
We know, intrinsically, that career-planning starts early. It starts the moment a parent asks their child "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It starts when parents start enrolling their children in extracurricular activities to help them understand what they love to do and what they are good at. It starts from their very first finger-painting class, along with the other activities in school that shape children's minds, their interests and their skills.
Helping children understand why they are in school is crucial. As generations pass, simply telling your child "you need to go to school because I say so" is becoming less relevant. Without developing a deep sense of purpose and context as to why they are sitting through chemistry class, it is extremely difficult to motivate the majority of students. Anyone but the type-A students will have a really hard time justifying how learning the way molecular bonds form will help them in real life.
We need to stop pretending like school is working for this generation. This generation -- and every generation from now on -- is going to have decreasing attention spans and an increasing need for gratification. Without giving someone a beacon in the distance to sail towards, they will sit in the ocean rudderless. They will drift towards the direction created by parents, friends and online influences. This is what happens with so many students, and yet they don't realize it until too late.
Right now, the purpose of school is being explained in one context for students: go to college. It is a message that surrounds schools constantly. It comes from the government, the media, from family and friends. However, I don't believe this is the right approach. I believe that context should be career and life first -- education will fit into it naturally.
How Do We Do This?
For children to find out what will truly make them happy in life, the bias must be taken out of the equation so that they can find their path. I believe there are three steps that schools and parents should be taking to accomplish this goal:
- Help each student learn about who they are on an intrinsic level. What is it that makes them tick? This would require a detailed psychological breakdown of each student to understand them deeply and manageably. We are trying to understand each student's character.
- Inform each student about a wide variety of careers in the world. Help them understand that there are thousands of careers out there -- not just the typical "top-tier" positions of lawyer, doctor and engineer. Each career is unique and important, and they should be treated as such.
- Help match students to their perfect set of careers based on "fit." Next, help them plot a path to each career, starting from the place they are in right now. Show them examples of people within that career that have had a similar life and character structure. Social proof goes a long way in helping a student think: "If that person can do that, so can I."
It starts with each student, from their first day of school. Treat them as unique individuals. Their educational experience will not, and should not, be the same as their classmates. Everything should be optimized for who that student is, and what their specific needs are. As we transition into the data-driven, digital era -- the opportunity to optimize each student's experience is unparalleled. No longer should the student be "guessing" who they are, and what they should be aiming for. Schools should be working with parents to provide a unique opportunity to match each student with the opportunities needed to reach their goal. After all -- isn't the real purpose of education to answer that all-important question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"