I have just returned from several months of work with high schools in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, and three Canadian provinces. I’ve also just become a high school parent. Based on both experiences, I’d say that one part of me is buoyant and optimistic—the other part, well, not so much. I’m alternately troubled or appalled by what I see in high schools.
I’m hopeful because the majority of teachers at the small, innovative high schools and alternative programs I generally work with have implemented a set of emerging best practices that I believe are the educational wave of the future. The mix includes project based learning, the principles of youth development, and the intentional creation of a coherent, personalized school culture that encourages and supports peak performance.
I’m concerned, though, because so many other high schools remain relics. I’ll share an example. My son’s new principal, to his credit, showed Shift Happens at the freshman orientation evening. If this YouTube production doesn’t get you thinking about the necessity to transform high school education, nothing will. Bravo! But then a few days later, the Parent-Student Handbook showed up in the mail. The booklet opens with the daily schedule, rules and behavior codes, the ban on gang colors—and then moves on to the real poetry, the expulsion policy.
Now, I’m not against rules—I used to lay down the law in my classroom when necessary. But this document conjures up the tired truths of another era: rows of desks, more seat time, the repetitive nature of learning, and the unspoken contract between school and learner that says ‘you behave and we’ll give you a diploma.’ It exemplifies how the vast majority of the 10,000 U.S. high schools haven’t quite grasped how to motivate, engage, or teach the millennial generation.
How would I change the handbook? I’d begin by welcoming students into a community of learners, both students and teachers, who follow norms, not rules. I’d offer a four-year vision that emphasizes the opportunity students have to achieve personal balance, master a 21st century skill set, and become learners who can handle information of any kind, anywhere, at any time. I’d say that this school will help them get into college—but that admission to college is just a byproduct of good learning, not an end in itself. I’d make it clear that the school’s most important goal is to help students discover their purpose in life—to go deep into themselves and come out the other side with insights about who they are and what they want out of life. And I would allocate the first week of school to discuss these ideas and bring students on board.
Why would I shift the approach? Because unless we teach our young people to go deep, we are not preparing them for the life they will lead in this century, which will revolve around such themes as creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, motivation, and flexibility. A fast food approach to learning, based on a set of deliverables measured by tests and with a curriculum closer to the 1950s than the 2000s, teaches none of the above.
This is not to reprise the debate about whether schools should be pragmatic vehicles for workforce preparation, or if they should educate for noble truths. I’m saying we must do both—because life now demands both.
Consider the latest research by Bill Damon, a Stanford professor, child development expert, and leading researcher into adolescents. In his new book, The Path to Purpose, Damon notes that 25% of teenagers claim to have no purpose in life. And, while others ‘dabble or dream,’ only 20% have a solid sense of direction.
We don’t know if these statistics are high or low since no one has surveyed youth purpose before. But a mountain of data on youth development, adolescent mental health, and developmental psychology suggests that we should care about the findings. Purpose is a critical asset for healthy adulthood. Without a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a host of problems start to show up in people’s lives that impact their health, behavior, and productivity.
Purpose also relates directly to the pursuit of new skills and knowledge. Research clearly shows that purpose, meaning, and mastery move in tandem. Without tapping into a sense of purpose, high schools are reduced to rules and incentives—primarily the promise of college—rather than relying on the deeper wellsprings of learning that lead to the highest levels of student performance.
A surprising number of parents, including the majority in high-achieving suburban high school districts, support this Faustian pact at the moment. The chance at a name-plate university outweighs twinges about too much emphasis on grades and test scores. We’ve talked ourselves into the notion that schools don’t need to produce healthy adults, just people who can get a degree. (That sounds cynical, but our system is disease-prone: 60% of high school students show high levels of stress and anxiety.) But here’s the real sticking point, and every parent of a child who will come to adulthood in the next 10 years should consider it carefully: Schools cannot teach 21st century skills to students who feel no purpose in life. It won’t happen.
Here’s why: The ‘soft’ skills identified with success in today’s world—the ability to work with a team, become an entrepreneur, or thrive in the face of adversity—derive from a set of habits and attitudes of a deeper nature, such as empathy, flexibility, confidence, and purpose. For example, adults with a strong sense of purpose show higher levels of empathy, a crucial habit of mind necessary for effective teamwork. Purpose is linked to creativity and innovative problem-solving—key goals of millennial education.
If adults are serious about meeting their responsibilities to prepare students to enter the world of the 21st century, it will not be accomplished by adhering to an obsolete model of academic learning that teaches skills as widgets—or by repeating outdated rules. I like the quote from Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Instead, high schools must create a system of learning based on the fields of positive psychology, developmental psychology, emotional intelligence, peak performance, and youth development. This model of human development melds the noble aspirations of education to the new technologies of personal success. It is the key to supporting young people’s desire for purposeful achievement, social engagement, and mastery of essential skills.
We know how to make this model work in schools, and many schools have begun the journey. But the U.S., bluntly, needs to get it in gear. In the U.K., they have their version of No Child Left Behind, but it’s known as Every Child Matters. Think about the difference. And contrast it with this: On one of my summer trips, I met a teacher who quit his job because 26 of the 40 high school staff were football coaches, all hired for their coaching prowess and then randomly assigned to teach English, Math, and Science. Do you think students went deep in those classes, or just on the football field?
Too much of that for too long, and education will become a national security issue. Schools that refuse to change will continue to turn out too many purposeless, stressed-out students with second-class skills. We know how to do better. A new set of best practices for 21st century education is emerging, melding youth development principles with inquiry-based methods that stimulate a young person’s desire to know more about the world and serve it well. That’s how we can prepare students for the future.