23 October 2006

University Punt, Part 2

High schools and universities should feel obligated to find the intersection of three things for each student: what the student is good at, what they enjoy, and what there is demand for.

What the student is good at: Each student has a certain set of skills or potentialities. A great teacher or coach is able to lead a student through experiences that reveal that potential to the student - that help them to develop that skill. Sadly, schools tend to focus on the possibilities that lie within the traditional categories of logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. If a child's strength or potential lies more clearly within the categories of musical, bodily-kinesthetic, artistic, interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligence, school less clearly reveals that. A child deserves to be clear about what he or she is good at by the time they have been in the school system for 12 or more years.

What they enjoy: The experience of flow - the engagement in an activity so intense that one loses track of time, self, and other possibilities - is one of the biggest determinants of joy. There is a difference between what someone is good at and what creates flow. One of the conditions that promotes flow is a task that is neither too difficult (something that would create stress or anxiety instead of flow) nor too easy (something that would make someone bored or simply feel in control instead of flow). Flow can be used as a development compass - bored students need new challenges and stressed students need a new skill. Again, by 18 children have the right to expect to know what kinds of activities promote flow.

What there is demand for: Finally, children need to understand which activities contribute to others, which activities create value for which others will pay. Playing video games may be something a child is good at and something that promotes flow, but its consequences are contained to a virtual world. This matter of demand is perhaps the most opaque for children.

Each child should approach life after school with a clear sense of the intersection between these three elements, prepared to pursue a career that allows them to feel competent, engaged, and like contributing members of society. That these three issues are treated as peripheral to education rather than central to it is yet another thing that so perplexes me about our modern world.

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