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How School Screws Things Up For "Real Life"

My older daughter graduated from college in May and has been working at her new job since June. Last night we had a conversation that got me thinking about how school does a really terrible job of preparing our young people for "the real world" by setting up some seriously unrealistic expectations.

In school, we teach kids that:

  • Life happens in a series of connected, time-delineated steps (courses, semesters) so there's always "light at the end of the tunnel" and its clear what the next step will be.
  • If you follow the rules--of an individual teacher, of the school--you will be rewarded.
  • If you work hard, you will be rewarded.
  • There are always "right" answers to questions and problems.
  • Problems are well-defined and if you don't get the "right" answer, it's because you didn't work hard enough. 

Ironically, those kids who take these lessons of school most seriously--who try hard to do what we ask them to do in school--end up being the most disillusioned and ill-prepared for what happens when they graduate. Further, these rules are hidden, making their impact more insidious and talking about the problems they cause more difficult.

What we really need to be teaching young people, if we truly want to prepare them for the "real world," is that:

  • Work and its problems are really ill-defined. Rarely are there "right" answers. More often than not we are having to make trade-offs that force us to choose between "bad" and "worse" or at least between "OK" and "less OK." There are always going to be extenuating factors and issues that impede our ability to achieve the ideal, even in those situations that seem the most clear-cut.
  • Sometimes hard work is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes following the rules is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. The challenge is learning when to stop beating our heads against a particular brick wall where our hard work and rule-following is not working. When do we need to break the rules? When do we need to work hard at something else or somewhere else?
  • Related to this, working harder isn't always the answer. Sometimes we are in situations where problems go unsolved and issues are unresolved because of things that are entirely outside of our control. Sometimes there is no answer and we have to learn the lessons of patience and of moving to a new situation, rather than just buckling down and trying to make the best of what we have.
  • There is no "light at the end of the tunnel." There is just more tunnel. Some parts of the tunnel are darker and some have more light flickering in. But there is always tunnel and we are never sure what lies at the other end.

I remember graduating from college and facing many of the same issues my daughter is now facing. I was so used to a world where everything had been so clearly defined for me, where if you just went with the program you would get where you needed to go. But that's not how the real world operates. It seems like we should be preparing our kids for that.


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I was really good at, as one of my teachers called it, 'playing school.' And while I didn't face all the challenges listed above once I was no longer 'playing school,' I've found the 'light at the end of the tunnel' problem to be probably the biggest challenge in my working life. When does the project end? When should it end? What do you mean, the starting and end points are up to me? I really enjoy the independence of the work I have now, but that was a difficult adjustment.

I'm thinking a lot about that whole "light at the end of the tunnel" thing, B, and I think that is a real issue for people. Not just that there are always more tunnels, but also moving into deciding things for yourself instead of a school or teacher doing it. I may write some more about how to manage that. Thanks for commenting!

Thanks Michele;
I've been think of the purpose of schooling and your post provides some raw material to better express my thoughts, which I've done here

Hi Howard--Thanks for the comment and the follow-up post. You make some excellent points (as I mentioned in my comment on your post) and I think it's a conversation we as a culture need to be having.

Your description of the "real world" situation reminded me of what Barack Obama faces everyday. Sometimes I think that US citizens are still caught up in the "one right answer" phenomenon, when actually the problems facing any politician are real world problems usually involving trade-offs. For most politicians there is also no "light at the end of the tunnel" just more problems to be solved.

While I have used politicians to illustrate one work situation, a similar analogy could also be make for parents, don't you think. :-)

I think you're right, Maryanne about what President Obama is dealing with and that the whole "one right answer" thing makes it even harder. I wish that more of us did some meta-thinking about how we approach problems and issues to uncover some of these hidden rules we seem to have that color how we approach the world. I wonder how much of an impact the early structures of schooling have in terms of setting us up for the rest of our lives to see the world in these ways. . .

Thanks for the nice article.

You are damn right, many of us have experienced that dark side of life where you planned your future during college years because you were so bright.In your young mind you cannot figure it out that you might fail somehow somewhere or not get what you want. But reaching the real world, there is failure and you have to face it and also expected to move on.
Thanks that was a good article. Schools should teach students that sometimes what we hope for does not work and we have to change our plans.

I completely agree with you. As a College instructor in a CTE area I have been thinking about how to address this for the past several years. I try an make as many ties as I can to what it will be like once they start working. Just yesterday I wrote a post about how I am going to set up assignments in the future to really gauge what students are learning, this is currently the biggest disconnect between the real world and my classes. http://jgthornburgh.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/grades-vs-learning/

I agree wholeheartedly. we hand learners fish instead of teaching them how to fish. Just so you know there are those out their who are trying to create change , my whole career in education has been so, I have been disregarded as a rebel as I taught them project management, self-reliance, no right answers even to math problems, work teams, making choices and oh yes goal setting. to quote Ms Martin school does screw things up for real life.
S Haydock

The real irony of this is that many of the people who are trying to "fix" school today believe they have the "one right answer": that we should reward "good" work and punish "bad" work and that if schools aren't succeeding, it must mean we're not working hard enough....

I hear you, Gerald! It's frustrating to see the debates that are going on about school because I think they focus on the wrong issues and questions. And it's such a political topic anymore, it's hard to get real dialogue going.

I like you on facebook and follow through google reader!

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