Malia Obama is taking a year off. Call it a gap year, a bridge year or launch year, the President’s oldest daughter will attend Harvard University after a year-long school sabbatical.
Enter the Twitter-sphere and our cultural love for celebrity criticism.
She has earned support for her choice from some, but many see it as delaying adulthood or a privilege for the upper class. While both those things may be true, the reality is that there are students who are simply not ready to jump straight from high school to a traditional 4-year college.
Even for students who are well-equipped academically, more and more counselors and social workers are being hired to fill the gap for social-emotional health and resilience. When we push students to live beyond their limits, they struggle more than thrive. This may not be true for all kids, but for those who are learning to compete at a high level at a young age, the pressures can be intense. Without a solid foundation of self and balance (Covey’s Sharpen the Saw concept), students who burn bright at a young age have the potential to burn out as well.
“There’s this rush to figure out what you’re going to do,” says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the Franklin Project, which has a goal to create 1 million civilian national-service positions for young adults. We have a cult “of expectations to get started in life because you don’t want to fall behind. Life is not linear. Neither should the pathways of getting started.” – Source: http://bit.ly/27APBO9.
In the article quoting Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the author also points out that the skills to adapt and solve open-ended challenges are difficult to obtain in regimented and over-scheduled PK-12 education models. This doesn’t necessarily change when students get to college.
In 2012, IBM conducted a survey where they asked high school students and CEO’s what skills they felt were critical to success. The results are surprisingly similar:
Both put collaboration, communication, flexibility and creativity at the top of the list. If our students know the skills they need to thrive, and those match with our business leaders, then where is the disconnect?
There are several.
The first is our 15 year obsession with high stakes testing. See a previous post on this topic. I will add: in the same way that students cannot be pushed to live permanently beyond their limits, neither can our schools. If we expect our schools to do everything from educating, counseling, mediating, training, coaching, transporting, feeding and even clothing our students, then schools will continue to be strapped to deliver on the primary promise of preparing students for life.
The second is the rapid shifts in work and society over the last 30 years. Think about this: if you were born at just about any other time in history, your entire life would experience little, if any, changes in society or technology. The forces that would disrupt your existence would have been food supply, disease or war – and either you could solve and overcome these problems or you couldn’t. I recently watched Braveheart and there is a scene where William Wallace returns to his boyhood home and breathes in the air. The air smells the same, the stone huts are the same, the land is the same, the mode of transportation the same, the cultivation of crops the same, methods of warfare identical, and the tyrannical rule of the British king still intact.
In the time period of Braveheart and in other times throughout history, wealth and value were easy to account for. At a recent leadership symposium hosted by Dr. Ruby Payne, she demonstrated that in an agricultural society, wealth was represented by a deed of property. In the industrial age, wealth was represented by a stock portfolio. In today’s knowledge economy, how do we value the knowledge worker? As Dr. Payne pointed out – no one has figured that out. We try, but in the end, we still struggle to put a price tag on the knowledge worker who is creative, collaborative and can communicate well. These intangible skills have tangible outcomes, but a direct link is not always easy to identify.
As a result, we continue to measure things we can count (numbers, correct answers, recallable facts) as opposed to things we can feel and observe, but not touch (teamwork, idea generation, creativity).
The third disconnect is the time gap. Parents of high school students still see the four year institution as “the way” to a better future because in their high school lives, it was. How could that much possibly change in such a short period of time? In addition, it is easy for us to value pieces of paper over performance because there is a presumed security in those sheets. Don’t get me wrong – degrees have value. College has tremendous value. The ability to obtain a degree in a field of study is a mark of performance in and of itself.
The problem exists when we fail to recognize two things:
- Not all degrees are created equal.
- There are no guarantees.
In our pursuit to life-proof our children’s existence, we forget that learning occurs through failure, mistakes, experimentation, attempts and do-overs. These are essential steps to success. Failure is a step in a process – neither a goal nor a destination, simply a step.
In technical fields, this is reflected in Thomas Edison’s quote about the “10,000 ways” in which a light bulb doesn’t work. In academic fields, it’s the bleeding essay returned with teacher comments for editing and improvement. In professional fields, it’s not getting a job because another candidate had better interview skills. In social-emotional arenas, it’s working it out with your friend on the playground because you are learning how to set boundaries and have healthy relationships.
These types of “failures” are simply tiny tears in our mental and emotional muscle that get worked out with use. Like physical muscle, they come back stronger. Without the muscles breaking down, there is no growth. In the same way, without mistakes, there is no learning. If we never got a wrong answer, what did we learn? We already knew it. One of the problems in chemistry today is nothing seems to ever blow up. Everything is contained in safe solutions with predictable results. The pioneers of chemistry – some who gave their lives to their discipline – are groaning in their graves at the sanitization of their craft.
When we try to control every variable in the process of growing children into adults, we are giving into fear. Our fear of failure outweighs our pursuit of excellence in ourselves, our work and our lives. We would rather play it safe than put something on the line.
Taking a year to find some gumption and test your mettle against an unsettled world smacks of courage. We would do well to instill in our students a confidence that allows them to carve their own path and make a contribution to those around them.