Does your school resemble the workplace? Do the skills that students are learning transition to life after school? Too often, the answer to these questions is a resounding no. Many schools suffer from a distorted reality where students solve the predictable problems that are given to them and are judged solely on their ability to digest and memorize the content that is decided upon by their teacher.
As a High School Principal, the most common defense I hear of this “distorted reality” is that we must prepare students for college. I vehemently disagree as our goal is not to prepare students for more education, but for the vastly unknown reality of life. Institutions of post-secondary education must also examine their ability to instill the skills and dispositions needed by their students when they enter the workforce. Most of us learned more valuable lessons in our first few months on the job than four years of college education that supposedly prepared us.
I realize that what I’m saying isn’t popular, but a dramatic shift is needed in classrooms around our country. Our teachers are capable, but our system of accountability has been great for the large testing companies and not so great for our learners. We have created a generation of young people who have been taught to worry more about the grade they earn on a test than the skills they are learning. They fear failure to such a degree that many are paralyzed that they may “fail”.
Only in this “distorted reality” is failure something to be feared. In the real world failure is perhaps life’s greatest teacher. Winston Churchill famously stated, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. This suggests that success may actually be the painting and failure the brush strokes. We must embrace failure as educators and give our students the opportunity to solve real and meaningful problems.
Real big problems exist in our schools and communities yet we often pretend that the only problems worth solving are the ones in our textbook or on the End of Course Exam. We allow students to only solve the problems that are handed to them in our “distorted reality”. In the real world defining the real problem is the most important part. Companies often fail not because they aren’t solving problems, but because they are solving the wrong ones. Innovation is the result of our ability to observe the everyday around us and define problems that others miss. We must give our students these opportunities and stop handing them the problem we want them to solve.
Many schools are utilizing project based learning, design thinking, and other methodologies to turn this “distorted reality” on its head. We must continue pushing each other to think differently about education and leverage our communities as we seek to better connect students to the rapidly changing world around them. I believe that our teachers are talented enough, but we must consider that the accountability systems we have chosen are undermining this goal. Let’s work together to make school work for students and not testing companies.