Preparing Students for the Real World?

I am not the only educator in my extended family and get-togethers invariably turn into opportunities to talk about education. One of my cousins is an Assistant Professor in a health field at a university about one hour away from me and I greatly enjoy discussing our profession with him.

K-12 educators like myself often justify what we do in the classroom because we hope it will “help our students in college and in the real world”—talking to my cousin lets me know if I’m on the right track, even though I would theoretically teach students years before he would.
Our conversations lately have centered on the need for student-led and student-generated assignments. I began Genius Hour in Effective Teens last year (I will be giving students the opportunity to complete a modified US History student-led project this year, as well) and shared with him the tremendous benefits I’ve seen when my 8th Graders are in charge of their learning. Genius Hour is the antithesis of telling students “the right answer” and the resiliency my students show is truly what the project is about.  Getting students to think and problem solve independently is, to me, key to ensuring student success in “the real world”. 

What surprises me is how many of my cousin's students share the very same “right answer” mentality. These young adults have completed K-12 education and undergrad courses.  He often gives essay questions that are only one sentence long and are intentionally designed to be opportunities for problem-solving (much like Genius Hour). All too often, though, students come to him frustrated, confused, and uncertain.

We have and will continue to theorize possible reasons for this. We believe student conformity is so ingrained in students they don’t know what to do when asked to think for themselves. The students that just want to please (parents, teachers, and society) don't want to risk having “the wrong answer” and that prevents them from optimizing their potential. There is also the very real fear of a “bad” grade and the implications that will have on the students’ future. Whatever the reason the result is students must have frequent opportunities at all age levels to explore learning independently and without fear of negative grades. Maybe then students will be truly prepared for the real world.

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