By Brad Beckstrom
It seems like our entire education process is backwards. I believe this is especially true of higher education. Much of the emphasis is put on educating ahead of doing. Many of us get through high school, and often several years of college, before choosing a major. That’s quite an investment of time, becoming “educated”, without a clear path or passion.
In high school, students often search for universities based on cost, location, and reputation that their GPA & SAT scores “align with.” Many universities encourage this GPA and test score focus by promoting the high GPAs of students they admit. Here in Virginia, the two largest state universities boast they are admitting students with 4.5 and 4.2 GPAs. Imagine all of the talent they are excluding from our public universities. We only need to look at recent history to see artists, entrepreneurs, writers, inventors, musicians, and entertainers often come from far outside the system or drop out of it in frustration.
The stellar students and test takers who do gain admittance often never truly find their path, entering the job market searching for a position based on attributes like salary, location, and benefits. Only 62% of these stellar students will work in a job requiring a college degree or related to their college major.
Entering the job market, many are prepared and motivated (often with student loan debt) and, if they are lucky, choose one of a few less than desirable positions. The less prepared and motivated choose from what’s left, often well below their expectations. Only 27% will find a job in their chosen field and will graduate with an average of $35,000 in student loan debt.
It seems sort of crazy. Watching students at every grade level scurrying from one education department approved, lesson planned class to the next. Many are taught to take tests which are more about ranking the school than truly teaching the student. This doesn’t just happen in disadvantaged neighborhoods, this happens in the finest business schools in the country. David Heinemeier Hansson author and creator of Ruby on Rails urged students at Stanford to Unlearn their MBA. Entrepreneurs can talk for hours about what they did not learn in school.
Helping Students find out who they really are.
Many spend their entire high school and college experience striving for the highest GPA across the board, leaving little time to figure out who they really are. I don’t pretend to think that we will quickly change an education system built around test scores versus experiences. It’s up to parents and educators to build experiences and doing into the lives of students at a young age.
If you’re a parent or teacher there are a couple things you can do early on to help students find their strengths and focus on them long term. Start with a Strength Finder survey.I’ve used the Strengths Finder product personally and they now offer a student version called StrengthsExplorer. Tom Rath developed Strength Finder and has written about it extensively. It’s a solid product. I can also recommend the VIA survey also available for students and adults. There are free versions on the website you can try out. Taking the survey is just a first step. I recommend trying several and comparing results. Some of the results may surprise you.
The next step is helping students align their academic focus with the strengths and laying off a bit on non-strengths. This can be as simple as a few tweaks to an upcoming school year or working with a student to redesign their academic experience completely. There are new one and two year schools like the Experience Institute or soon to be launched Wayfinding Academy. I’ve met the founders of both of these schools and 10 years from now people will be saying “why didn’t we think of this sooner?”
Maybe some of the best results can be achieved through helping a student or helping yourself design a completely customized experience that includes small projects, volunteering, part-time work, internships. The key is finding strengths and capitalizing on them versus trying to find, score and correct weaknesses.