March 3, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 6:01 pm by chavisory

I really don’t intend this to be a blog primarily about education issues…they just happen to be the news articles that are catching my attention this week, and today proves no exception.

This is something that I’m very torn about.  (In Middle School, Charting Their Course to College and Beyond, NYT 2/28/10)  Students in the North Brunswick, NJ school district will soon all have individualized education plans, or “personalized student learning plans,” as called in the article.  The idea is that every kid, starting in 6th grade, has an online profile which they can use continuously along with parents and counselors to chart their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and career goals.

I have long been ranting that kids need much more personal discretion to pursue their own interests, in school, more course choices, more freedom to do what they really want to do as the only path to true excellence in anything.  So it’s very tempting to see any step away from “one size fits all” education, away from disproportionate focus on correcting students’ weaknesses instead of supporting and encouraging their strengths (which I tend to think actually reinforces the weaknesses in the long run), toward giving kids more insight and control over their college and career fates as a good thing.

But I’m sort of skeptical of this plan.

One of my favorite frequent letter writers at once wrote “Be careful what you wish for, when it’s going to be implemented by idiots.”  That’s sort of how I feel about this.  It looks really good, foolproof almost, but it could go really wrong in the wrong hands.

Firstly, do the schools actually have the volume of course selection in middle school that would allow students to act on their career desires?  Mine sure as hell didn’t–and we were in a relatively affluent district.

Do teachers and counselors have the time and knowledge to assist and encourage students in pursuit of off-the-beaten-academic-path interests?  Are the schools willing to give the kids the freedom of time during school hours to really pursue what they want?  Forgive me, but I doubt it.

Already, some of the school people quoted in the article are demonstrating some real wrongheadedness about what this system should mean for students:

“If you don’t know yourself and think you want to be a biologist, you may realize in your sophomore year in college you don’t like science,” said Mercedes Arias, a Linwood language arts coordinator who is helping develop the learning plans. “You should have really figured that out sooner.”

But, really?  Maybe.   I’m all for people learning to be more self-aware and honest about what they want, but demanding this kind of decision-making of 11-year-olds is a bit harsh.  Especially in the context of the way our whole culture is currently structured, they haven’t had any chance to find those things out for themselves.  Maybe going that far in science before realizing that it wasn’t for you was vital to figuring out what you DID want to do.  Maybe that kid will still maintain a lifelong interest in biology; she just realizes that doing it as a career isn’t really what she wants.  And the way that the school system currently isolates kids completely from the real world of work, you don’t really see how professionals in your field work until you get to college.  Why the blame on the kid?  Kids that young should have the freedom to explore, the freedom to make mistakes.  Even big mistakes.  Especially big mistakes.

And who really makes it to college before realizing that they really don’t like science?  In my observation, the vast majority of my classmates were openly science-phobic a long, long time before that.

Secondly, I see the potential for this to become just another constriction on students’ lives and interests, or another avenue for tracking kids into essentially permanent trajectories based on testing performance.  Under the guise, even the intent, of giving kids more control, it could actually give them less.  It could be a real trap for kids who have certain things expected of them by even the most well-meaning parents or teachers.  Imagine how this could go for kids interested in exploring something outside their main area of interest:

KID:  “I’d like to maybe try another art class this semester.”

But that’s not in your learning plan.

That’s not working towards your goal of being a doctor.

That’s not at all what the Matchmaker test identified as your ideal career.

If I can use myself as an example…I was always, from childhood, interested in theatrical and performance art.  I would beg for speaking roles in church plays.  But no one would take me seriously, because I was a such a shy kid.  Not that I thought I wanted to be an actress, but I was very interested in that realm.  Only no one around me understood anything at all about the variety of functions necessary and careers available in the arts world, or else someone might’ve been able to help me out more with getting involved in a way that fit my strengths.  I took an acting class in high school and got involved with the production of the school musicals, and everyone acted shocked, just shocked! that I would do such a thing–I was quiet and good at science.  And I was thinking but this is what I SAID I wanted all along and no one would pay attention–you’re only shocked that I actually DID something about it given the chance. I even had one of those career matcher tests come back with “visual or performing arts” listed as my top match and no one would believe it.

I was even about to go to college as an English major.  And then one day my junior year, I realized I like reading.  I’ve thoroughly hated every single English class I’ve ever been in, because they just ruin the experience of reading.

So I entered college with a biology/drama double major.  And no actual idea what I was going to do for a living.  I was a sophomore before I knew–the very first time I even ever heard of stage management, I knew, immediately and without a shred of doubt, that that was what I was supposed to do.  Was it a late discovery? Maybe, but it was the right time, for who I was and where I was.  I do still take an intense interest in biology and am glad I have the background; I don’t look at all those years as wasted.  Or the time I spent in acting, creative writing, journalism, or chemistry in high school; the broad and eclectic foundation of humanistic knowledge turned out to be a perfect foundation for what I eventually knew I wanted to do, even though I couldn’t have known it at the time.  But according to language arts coordinator Arias, I “should really have figured that out sooner.”  I’m sorry, but what does she know?

Many educators and parents say that creating learning plans for everyone can better prepare students for college, and motivate even low achievers to work harder by showing them that what they want matters, too.

I do appreciate the attempt at giving students more control and personal investment…but for heaven’s sake, what does it say that this is a fairly new idea–that what students WANT actually matters?  And it shouldn’t “matter, too.”  It should matter primarily.  I’d be interested to see whether the schools are backing this up with available course selection, flexibility, and free time to pursue individual projects.

I think the potential for students to take more control and more interest in their own futures is high, but the potential for misuse or gross oversimplification by teachers and parents, or for this to become just one more burden on kids who don’t learn and grow on the same time line as everyone else, is also high.

At best, though, perhaps this could be a tool by which students could pressure their school systems to actually give them more freedom in support of their personalized plans.


  1. brandy said,

    I doubt it will actually change much, honestly. I grew up in KCKS, and in Kansas, gifted is covered under special ed and thus all gifted students have IEPs. So every year, my mom met with whoever the current gifted teacher was to develop an IEP for me. They were totally meaningless. Very vague, had no impact on what we actually did in school. I foresee this winding up the same way.

    The career part is very interesting to me, because one of my research interests is the development of career interests (especially in science) and getting kids more exposure to the realities of careers they may be interested in. A lot of that stems from my own experience – due to a few chance encounters, I basically knew what I wanted to do when I was 15. My particular focus has shifted some, but in the wide realm of all possible careers, it basically hasn’t changed – I wanted to be a cognitive scientist then and I am in still the process of becoming one now, 15 years later. And that early realization had a major impact on what I did with my spare time in high school, what college I went to, and what I did once I got to college.

    I don’t think it’s necessary by any stretch of the imagination to figure things out so early, but I feel like I was incredibly lucky in that regard. Not because I wanted to limit myself, but because unlike most high school students I got the chance to start pursuing my passion (completely independently of school, I might add) which is FUN. Doing what you’re meant to do is inherently an enjoyable experience, you know? People should get to spend as many years doing that as possible.

    That said, you’re totally right that making a kid focus their classes on a middle/high school level on a particular career is the wrong way to do it. There wasn’t anything even available to me in school that would have furthered my particular career goal (except the joke that was AP Psych; I got a 5 on the test without taking the class). I skipped AP Physics, which smart MIT-girl was obviously “supposed” to take, in favor of advanced acting. I used school to pursue the goals that I knew would get me where I wanted to be, which was a place that midwestern high school counselors, as far as I can tell, do not comprehend. Had they had any say in my classes, they would have only gotten in my way.

    Which is why I’m mostly interested in furthering this kind of goal through informal learning experiences rather than prescriptive requirements in school. Some general guidelines for what kids should try out if they have particular interests is fine, but the structure of modern middle/high school does not allow enough flexibility for students to truly explore their options.

    • brandy said,

      Ok, that didn’t quite wind up as long as your original blog entry. *whew*

  2. chavisory said,

    I didn’t know you ever took advanced acting! Was McNabb teaching it yet at that point?

    Agree that when a kid knows early what they want, and have a chance to do something about it, it’s a great thing. A good friend of mine here knew when she was 8 that she wanted to be an anthropologist after seeing Lucy, and now she is. One of the reforms I’d most want to see is kids with a passion given the freedom to explore it and real guidance instead of being tied down by the very limited curriculums generally available in elementary/middle/early high school. There was just *no* specificity, specialization, or real freedom of course choice available until 10th/11th grade. And I don’t see this having a ton of concrete benefit without much more offered.

  3. brandy said,

    Oh, yeah, she’d already been there for a LONG time by the time any of us got to PH. You didn’t know that? I was in thespians and did a second major in theater! I somehow managed to drag half of scholar bowl into theater with me by the time I graduated.

    There are so many entire careers and fields of study that aren’t represented at all in the K-12 curriculum. Social sciences are a big one that you just wouldn’t even know exist other than a teensy-tinsy bit of government and econ, plus history.

  4. chavisory said,

    I knew she’d been there a long time; I didn’t know how long she’d been teaching the acting classes. There was apparently another guy who I only even saw like once who used to teach some of them. After you graduated, she became language arts chair, and she’s a vice principal now.

    I always thought language arts at PH was the biggest travesty. From 6th through 12th grade, I had only two halfway decent teachers. Of course I’d love to see more of everything–biology, social sciences, languages. But what district can afford all of it, when they’re barely keeping art and music on the schedule these days? That’s probably where this is most likely to prove a meaningless endeavor: the schools just aren’t going to be able to pony up all the options that the kids are going to realize they need.

    • brandy said,

      I think someone else taught drama when I was there (don’t know who – took it at my old school before I moved in 9th grade), but she’d been in charge of all things theater for at least a few years by the time I got there. I know she had started work on her PhD (EdD?) when I was there, so I’m not super-surprised that she’s an admin now! Hopefully she’s whipping them into shape…

      I had Miss Dickson two out of four years, and she was good. I had one pretty crappy LA teacher in 10th grade, but I forget her name now. My Jr High LA teachers were actually quite good, but they were also on the other side of the state. 🙂

  5. MinaMinaMina said,

    I have been thinking on how disappointed I am with the entirety of education in the US up to this point. Starting with reading. I mean, we’ve known for quite some time now that teaching a child two languages when they’re first developing speech (even just exposing them to other languages) helps them in the long run, with more than just being able to speak more than one language, but expanding their general way of thinking about things. So, I have to admit, I was very skeptical about the “Your Baby Can Read” program, but Patrick has been watching his first video for a few weeks and he still loves to watch it. When I watch his (albeit subtle) reactions, I can practically SEE him processing things he enjoys and he appears to recognize, already, Dr Titzer, the creator of the program series. When Patrick hears the guy’s intro and sees his face, he just lights up. He actually *enjoys* learning and he is only six months old. If he enjoys learning at this age because of the way it is being presented, and he is effectively learning it, then why are children not being taught to read until kindergarten??

    (On a side note: I realized that I forgot to mention, Patrick already understands when you tell him to “let go” of something. He understands object permanence, to a degree as most children his age do, but I have been experimenting with telling him to release objects and have about 70-75% success rate, depending upon how interesting the object he is grasping appears to him.)

    I know it was tough for me to learn as I got older (my rote memory recall sucks) and I understand that parenting involves a lot more than relying on the (public) school system to provide all the things a child requires in order to be “successful”. Pushing children to learn when they are younger, as in giving them *opportunities* at a younger age, might give them more time to actually decide whether or not they enjoy a subject. And, it will also allow them more time to figure out that they are actually *good* at it. Clearly, if the IEP is child-specific, then if a child changes his mind, should not the IEP *also* change? I mean, it can contain both long- and short-term goals, ideally, right? If not, why?

    I could ramble on and on about my complaints with the education SYSTEM (which, is where I see the primary problems. Not, necessarily, the teachers, as in reference to a previous post and Sari’s comment about Andy) … but, that would just frustrate me right before going to bed and it’s late enough already. I’ll chalk this one up to tired superseding my desire to support your argument. Oh, how I do love to read your smart bloggety blog. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: