Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Preparing Kids for the Future

Creating Passionate Users is one of the few blogs I read that crosses over into most of my areas of interest -- software development, learning theory, publishing, and occasionally Lifestylism-related gems like Preparing Kids for the Future.
"But really, I'd encourage anything the kid is interested in. And this is where the controversy is... whether "good parenting" is about taking a heavy hand in steering your kids toward a responsible means of making a living, vs. being supportive of their passions that might ultimately lead to a life of being, well, a starving musician. (Or whatever the equivalent is for any other pursuit that my parents would have considered a 'nice hobby, bad career choice.')"
The comments are piling up on the post, and many of them are worth reading as well. One of the problems with this discussion (wherever it comes up) is that it tends to assume a polarization in the choices available, between university leading to boring (but decent-paying) work on one path or happy (but starving) artists following their passions on the other. Most conscientious middle-class parents want nothing more than to offer the best of both paths (financial security from the former, happiness and passion from the latter), but are generally clueless about how to foster that ideal set of characteristics for their kids' future.

Since the last thing we want is to push our kids into lives that will make them miserable, we take a hands-off approach to guidance in these areas, telling kids that they can do whatever they want, and advising them to pursue their interests. Meanwhile, we try to expose them to as many activities and areas of interest as we can jam into our busy schedules, hoping that one or more might become a passion for them. So by the time Little Jimmy hits Kindergarten, he's already been in swimming lessons, music classes, gymnastics, dance, soccer and general preschool classes of all kinds.

Some of these hobbies and sports might become passions, but most won't...and very few of them have direct or viable counterparts in the current or future labour market, and unfortunately most of their experiences in high school are neither personally engaging or connected to their future lifestyles. So you get graduates with a few interests that are likely sports or hobbies (maybe even some that survived from those pre-Kindergarten exposures), some important skills, a network of friends, bits of knowledge about lots of topics, and a vague sense of their own aspirations in life. It's not a bad place to be overall, but then we ask them to specialize in one field/major/career, preferably in something with good pay and job prospects, with the implication that they'll probably be stuck in it for at least a decade or two. Stress!

I agree with Kathy's recommended preparation skills/orientations -- creativity, flexibility, resourcefulness, synthesis, metacognition -- they're all wonderfully cross-displinary, focused on creating new things, working together and finding interesting and challenging questions/problems/projects to work on. In many ways, schools do the opposite, segmenting topics and disciplines, covering old and existing material, isolating students from communities and each other, and regimenting what and how and when everything should be learned.

It's no surprise that school makes it difficult to develop these self-actualization skills. So how do you help someone figure out what they really like working on? For most people, it's not a simple matter of "discovering" their passion and then sending them off in that direction with a pat on the back. Passions don't tend to live in us fully formed and ready to be mapped over the real world. We learn what kinds of work really engages us by...drum roll please...actually working on interesting projects, usually with others, almost always with a creative process and result, learning new cross-displinary skills in the course of solving problems we need solved (and answering questions we need answered), and finding out what new opportunities arise out of all of these actions. Easy, right? More on this later...


Arwen said...

I went to an "alternative" school for a while that featured exactly this sort of teaching - synthesis, exploration, research, metacognition being highlights. It has served me pretty well: I'm definitely interested in most subjects; willing to explore new vistas; and I have been reasonably competent in all the sorts of places I've happened to.

I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to do with my extreme lack of specialization...

As for parenting, my mom believed in giving me tools for life and then allowing me to use them as I saw fit; she was also really insistent that I should never attend university simply for a job. University was for feeding your brain, and for fun. My sister and I have had very seperate paths, but we're happy, and adaptable.

Jeremy said...

Sounds like a success story to me!
: )

So how do you think you'll approach self-actualization for your kid(s) as a parent? How might it be different from how your mom did approached it?

OK, one more quick question. What kind of career guidance did you get in high school, other than your mom's wise take on the purpose of university?