Today, we have an educational process stuck in the 20th century. You go to high school for 4 years and then you go to college for 4 years – if you want to get a good job that is. But maybe you only go to college for 2 years; then you will probably stay in a “blue collar” field with no means to advance.
After you graduate you’re done, supposedly prepared for a life-time of work, assuming that you even know what you want to do with the rest of your life. This one-size-fits all approach to education has to change. There needs to be a variety of ways to advance in your career throughout your life.
We go to school in the early years to learn basic skills, like reading, writing and arithmetic. Think back to your early school days. What do you remember? It’s probably endless worksheets, problems on the board, or in books to solve. But that was OK. We did what the teacher asked. We wanted their approval and we knew that they knew what’s best.
But sometime later things begin to change. Starting in high school (in my experience), I began to think about my own learning. I realized pretty early that I hated math but I loved reading and writing. I devoured fiction books and got straight As, in all of my English classes. But in math and science classes I didn’t do so well. I began to wonder why I have to take all these courses that I don’t like, and wasn’t good at. It would have been nice to explore a little more my interest and talent in writing, rather than just attending the standard English classes that the school offered.
So that is where I ended up, a mediocre student with some high grades and some low grades, but luckily good enough to get into college. Once there, I didn’t know at all what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I could do with that skill. I didn’t want to be the typical English major who would become a starving artist, trying to get a book published, and I wasn’t yet interested in writing non-fiction that a Journalism degree would entail. I majored in Psychology with a minor in English, and went out in the world with few ideas.
I thought that I might get a job writing curriculum; that would combine my psychology degree (with its study of learning), together with my love of writing. Unfortunately, I found that curriculum writing jobs were only given to certified teachers, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate. But that’s when I learned about technical writing, where I could use my psychology background and my love of writing. But I couldn’t just go into that field. I had to take a number of contract positions so I could gain experience — experience that I couldn’t get from school.
Today with college costs so high, we can’t afford to stumble around until we find out what we want to do. Everyone needs to advance through college in 4 years or less. They need to have a good idea of what they want to do and have the skills to do it. My solution is this. In high school, students need to begin to take control of their own learning. They need to find a direction for themselves. The stakes are high and a lifetime of debt awaits everyone who makes the wrong decision.
End formal high school studies after Sophomore year. Everyone should take a test of basic skills, like what’s on the GED test. If they have low proficiency in one or more areas, they should take remedial coursework while they are still in high school, where they don’t have to pay for it. This is unlike the situation now, where most college students have to take remedial coursework that they pay for, before they can even take the courses in their major.
Next, give students learning choices to explore. Let them take on-line courses in a variety of subjects. Let them do apprenticeships or internships in career areas where they might have interest. Let them do independent projects or group projects in subject areas that interest them, and let them take community college courses so they can get a foot-in-the-door to higher education. If students fail or lose interest in one of those endeavors, no harm has been done.
Next, make two-year degrees from community colleges more transferable to 4 year degrees. It shouldn’t matter that you received a 2-year degree in auto mechanics but then decide you want to become an Engineer. If you have the skills and desire, you should be able to advance however you want. You should be able to take other courses than “Gen Ed” in community college and have them be transferrable. In fact, more people should start out with two year degrees and then transfer them to 4 year degrees. It is less costly and you can get more practical skills in the process.
In the 21st century, more education is required to have a successful career. Jobs are more fluid and are constantly changing. Education needs to change with it.
Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.