From the Archives: Education and college: we’re doing it wrong

Note: This was originally written back in July, 2012. I’ve migrated it here as part of an effort to collect some of my previous writings and to make sure I don’t lose it. Five years is a long time, and opinions and technology are sure to have changed since the original post.

I have been spending a lot of time as of late thinking about the connections between students, careers, and college. Many of the education technology solutions out there right now take one of two routes:

  1. Tell students that they need to go to college and focus on getting them in to college;
  2. Tell students that they need to pick a career and then work toward that career.

Take, for example, a recent tweet by a random high-schooler, @alisucks.

literally sitting on my computer on naviance searching possible careers to find out what college i should go to

This is, traditionally, how schools, counselors, parents, and ed tech companies approach the question of “what’s next.” And it doesn’t work.

High school cannot be thought of as independent from college or career. Neither can college or career be treated as individual silos with little to no connection between them. Students, educators, and service providers are not connecting the dots for students in a way they can understand.

First, no high school student should be expected to pick a career. It isn’t possible. High school students do not have enough experience with jobs, or even the world, to begin to intelligently execute that kind of search. Heck, I am 31 years old, have a college degree, a masters degree, and a good amount of work experience under my belt and I still think about what I want to do with my life from time to time.

Second, even if a student could identify the career they wanted to pursue for the rest of their life, is that really the primary criteria they should use when picking colleges?

Third, assuming that the prior two points work out just fine, how does that any of that tie back to a student’s high school experience? This work-flow relegates high school to a hurdle that must be overcome, or a box that must be checked, rather than an experience worth having in-and-of-itself.

Let’s connect these three pieces by taking a step back and looking at this from a higher level. Start by forgetting careers. Students should figure out what they love doing and focus on that. Careers can wait; students will be happier (and more engaged) if they are learning what they love.

Focus on high-level categories. For example, some students like building. They are Builders. Building plays a part of a wide range of careers and courses of study, from the obvious (sculpting, construction) to the less-so (programming, project management, architecture).

If you ask a high school student if they want to be a project manager you’re bound to get a blank stare. They won’t know what a project manager is. They will disengage.

If you ask a student if they want to build things, not only will they understand, they will start to think about how they can learn more about that interest. You increase engagement simply by starting with something that a student can understand.

You can use archetypes like “Builder” to help students explore careers and create a “bucket” of careers rather than pick a specific career. Don’t make a student choose a specific career; let them create a portfolio of possibilities. Let them refine that portfolio throughout the rest of their lives.

These archetypes and buckets of careers are the key to increasing student engagement and drawing connections between high school, college, and a student’s future. With the information contained in this bucket, you can illustrate for students what they need to accomplish in high school and why.

For example, if a student has veterinarian in their career bucket, one of the requirements for high school graduation would be AP Biology. Well, in order to take AP Biology you have to take regular Biology and regular Chemistry. You also need to have a good understanding of math and statistics.

Suddenly math isn’t just something that a student has to take; it is a key component of what they have said they want to do. AP Biology is no longer something that a student is taking so they can get into a top-tier university; AP Biology is giving them the foundation to pursue their dreams.

Another student could look at the science and math requirements and quickly realize that it takes more than a love of animals to become a veterinarian. It could help that student realistically evaluate and adjust their expectations. By removing veterinarian from their bucket of careers, that AP Biology requirement would disappear.

Students could experiment, adding and removing careers, tracking requirement changes and honing in on possibilities that are more in line with their interests.

All of this informs their college discussions and decisions. Our student, instead of taking AP Biology to get into a good college, would look for colleges that would allow her to build on her AP Biology experience as she worked toward her ultimate goal. Students would be able to look for colleges that matched the education requirements of the careers in their buckets.

Students would be going through the college search process with goals in mind, rather than going through the process “because college is next.”

The bucket of careers means that students are never expected to find their “lifetime” career; they are expected to explore. Exploration and experimentation are key pieces of gamification; we can increase student engagement by rebuilding the “career search” process on these cornerstones.

The bucket of careers also gives students stronger base from which to explore colleges. Their options are not limited; they will be looking for colleges that will help them experiment further. Students will focus on learning about what they love rather than hoping they randomly stumble upon something interesting.

All of this is maintained while increasing the relevance of high school in general, and course selection in particular. By drawing clear connections between a student’s bucket of careers and their courses, you help students see that their course work matters. Satisfying work is a key part of why playing games makes people happy. Satisfying work can be a key part of why going to school makes students happy.

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