March 3, 2010
What do you want to be when you grow up?
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 Salon.com 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.