When a high GPA and extracurricular activities aren’t enough – preparing high school students for real life
By David Levinson
I grew up in a small suburb in sunny South Florida and attended a local high school where I consistently ranked at, or quite near, the top of the class academically. By my junior year, I was hungry to become the valedictorian, make a big speech at graduation, win the presidency of a half dozen clubs while founding a few others, and pretty much make my application to any college a shoo-in for acceptance.
I found myself checking off the boxes. Straight As? Check. A ton of extracurricular activities? Check. Some solid recommendations from my teachers? Check. In all, I had the tools, the drive, and (what I had originally thought) the knowledge and skills to crush it at the college of my dreams.
I ended up getting into a private university that was one of my first choices. However, when I got there, I realized just how far behind I was on the skills that matter. Even though, on paper, I lined up well with my classmates, my experience knowing the world lagged far behind. I was new to many social issues, unfamiliar with important details in global and national conflicts, and unprepared to face the harsh realities of a world that did not care about my GPA.
I realized that my upbringing in a suburban “bubble,” through no fault of anyone in particular, had done little to prepare me for life outside of my neighborhood. I found myself playing catch-up, not only in understanding these key issues, but also in communicating, debating, and leading alongside my peers. My problem-solving skills relied on calling up my parents for advice. Pretty alarming for a student at an “elite” college. And I wasn’t the only one. All around me, I saw professors frustrated by the caliber of writing their classes produced, organizational recruiters disappointed by the array of skills in their candidates, and local partners uninspired by the leadership of student activists.
So what went wrong?
Although I eventually grew in my four years in college, I often think back on my high school experience and wonder how I, along with my classmates, could have done this growing up much earlier. It got me thinking about the importance of education, not as a precursor to college, but as a true institution that emphasizes growth of the mind and prioritizes developing real life skills. High schools need to place as much focus on the way we learn as they do on what we produce. We need exposure and access to all that is around us, and we need to produce in response to what is occurring outside of the four walls of a school building.
My thinking revolves around three main principles for schools to consider, and ultimately, act upon:
Schools should emphasize knowledge and skills, not just outcomes.
Results matter, don’t get me wrong. However, the other side of the educational coin is the process, and rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge, teach, or coach students through that process. What’s the point of a student memorizing our past presidents if they can’t describe and analyze what each of those presidencies stood for? Yes, much focus from local, state, and the national government focuses on the results of our students, but even if we can’t change the way students are evaluated at the legislative level, we can at least change the way we acknowledge the journey in our classrooms. Programs like SEED SPOT NEXT prioritize not just the outcomes that are produced, but also the knowledge, skills, and especially the passions that are developed by undergoing the course.
Knowledge and skills are becoming increasingly more important. A report by the National Center for Education and Economy stated, “The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services.” What won’t matter in the future is the “A” we earned on the exam, but it will be the knowledge and skills that got us there that will take us even further, and eventually, into employment.
Schools should de-emphasize conformity.
Most of what we do in K-12 education emphasizes conformity and adherence to a specific set of guidelines and principles. In fact, in an interview with a USA Today columnist Steve Strauss, he emphasizes that the current education system was created around the time of the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized a focus on memorization and predictable results, building employees and not thinkers. This is what makes us strong workers but stifled innovators. What is needed instead is a focus on exploration and understanding – a way for students to leverage their strengths and their interests to change the world. Social entrepreneurship is one sure way to make that possible. Helping students explore and own their strengths is another. Which brings us to the final principle – individual strengths.
Schools should prioritize individual strengths.
As Wang Zhao writes in World Class Learners, “For too long, students have been passive consumers and recipients of whatever adults give them: books, facilities, knowledge, tests, and disciplines. Schools have been built to facilitate effective consumption, rather than makers, creators, and entrepreneurs.” How often do schools explore student strengths? How much do we value what students are passionate about and what they want to do? Our students need a way to put what matters to them as individuals to good use.
Emily Anatole recently wrote about how the next generation of learners, “Generation Z,” are well aware of the world around them, and are already offering suggestions and solving problems in this uncertain time. How much are our schools facilitating that conversation? What kind of impact can our schools have if they tap into this potential, and lead each student to his or her own strength in the classroom?
Our schools, therefore, face a choice: hold on to the status quo, continue to produce students with inflated GPAs and little real-world understanding, or emphasize skills through global exposure and social entrepreneurship – skills that will impact not only their students, but strengthen society as well. In the short-term, our students will struggle with such a dramatic shift in educational approach, and their grades and test scores might reflect that, but in the long term, we will produce the kinds of thinkers, innovators, and citizens that our country needs, and we will ensure all students are ready for that first step on the college campus, and, ultimately, that first venture into the real world.