How Might Schools Prepare Us for “Real Life”

Michele at the Bamboo Project got my interest with a post about: How School Screws Things Up for Real Life.  My take on her main point:

(S)chool does a really terrible job of preparing our young people for “the real world” by setting up some seriously unrealistic expectations.

Let’s summarize this way:  people expect school to prepare them for their work life, but fail because the social structures and expectations, “the rules of the road if you will”, are completely different.  It’s reasonable that this “hidden curriculum” is important, but I think that there is even more involved.  It’s something that goes to the very purpose of schooling and I’ll begin with this list:

  1. Skills are more important than Content.  Schools put too much emphasis on content recall instead of things like analysis.  Most students do need an understanding and recall of some content, but skills are more important, especially skills like analysis.  Many specifics that Michele lists can become issues because novices often take their world at face value (i.e., their first impression).  Analysis prepares us to look deeper and begins with problem framing, exploring different way of looking at a problem in order to find an acceptable way to communicate and to guides one’s actions.  This is the essence of maturity and something important to workers and employers and it leads me to a 2nd point.
  2. In early life, Maturation is more important than Knowledge.  Our lifetime is generally divided into 3 periods.  Schooling, working, and retirement.    Because schooling is first, it’s natural to assume that what is happening at this time is maturation.  Instead of trying to cram everything they will need to know into one’s first 22 years, an impossible task to begin with, strive instead for helping students reach maturity in their capabilities; to be their best possible self.  The ability to act with whatever capabilities one excels, along with promoting emotional, physical, and personal wholeness, is much more important than what content one knows.  This is how we should be measuring students.
  3. Graduates don’t need certificates; they need resources.  It make no sense to think that one’s learning needs end with graduation at age 22 or there abouts.  John Hagel has suggested that knowledge today is found in flows, and if we want to be successful, we need access to these knowledge flows.  It also makes no sense that one’s developmental influences (their school) should not be a participant in this flow.  Students should graduate with more than a certificate, they should also have an active personal learning network.  I can think of no better transition process than to build a learning network in school that can be carried into later life.  Imagine if an employer was not only hiring a school’s “product”, but also an entire knowledge network resource.  It is the essence of this 2.0 networked world that artificial boundaries to accessing resources are being eliminated.  Let’s make schools part of this boundary breaking

This is not an exhaustive list.  What other ways of educational reform could help us function better or healthier in life?  What should schools look like; what should be their purpose?

What Might be the Future of Educational Reform

Ken Allan recently referenced James Kauffman in this post, who correctly notes that many calls for change in education fail to define any specifics of change. In this post I want to look at trends that are relevant to much of educational reform (and to work practices in general), trends that might help specify change needs.

As the world changes, so do learning needs.  Raelin et al (2010) points out that a 20th Century scientific approach to practice, characterized by standardization, no longer suffices.    I find this sentiment to be an echo of Hagel, Browns and Davison (HBD) who encourages us toward a “pull” model of learning.  This means not depend on trying to predetermine knowledge and push it in advance to where it will be needed, but instead to focus on tapping into knowledge flows and pulling knowledge to where it is needed right now.  The Agile Manifesto, explained in Sahana’s view here, is a recent idea that highlights a new found importance for flexibility beyond practice standards.  I find this flexibility beyond standards to be an important pattern in all approaches.

For most of history, education and work practices were predominately guided by a tradition that began in ancient Greece.  Each generation added to that tradition, but learning’s foundation remained in this ongoing tradition.  It’s still with us today, as it rightfully should be.  We can’t escape our heritage, at least not completely.  But, there were limitations to depending on tradition these limitations were to be exposed by the enlightenment thinkers.

The enlightenment sought to place the authority of science above tradition as a new method to make judgements.  Empirical science was used to build practice standards that were considered more authoritative than tradition and positivism sought to extend these standards into every aspect of our lives and our practices.  Successful standardization in 20th Century Fordist practices in some ways can be seen as the apex of enlightenment thinking about standards and practice.  However, in many other ways the triumph of scientific standards proved allusive.  In the face of a growing recognition of the complexity of life, especially the opened nature of social life, postmodern, post-structuralist, post-Fordist and many other critiques took root.

While standardization proved very productive in closed and limited process situations, much of the most importance processes in our lives were open, multidimensional and complex.  While science would help us to better understand these processes, these processes would not conform to universal standards and simple applications of scientific experimental findings.  It became recognized that something more flexible than standards are required.

If you look at current suggestions for change in education, Raelin’s practice-based learning, HBD’s Power of Pull or software developer’s calls for agility; they have a common theme.  The need to improve practice in ways that are open and flexible, are beyond what can be achieved by standards, and allow people to make use of the mind’s capacity for pattern recognition when responding to everyday complexity.  This seems like as good a trend as any when specifying educational reform.  That does not mean the closed processes and standards are finished.  The evidence-based practice movement can be seen as a recognition that practice standards and protocols can still be improved.  But we also need a layer of learning that sits on top of practice standards.

What is the driving force of this new level? It’s not tradition.  It’s not science, at lest in a positivist sense.  It seems to be digitally enabled collaboration, the enablement of creativity, the ability to adapt to contexts, and maybe much more.  I think the jury is still out, while the research come in.