For most parents, when they ask their child how their day at school was, they are met with a grunt; and if they are lucky, a mumbled ‘OK’. Perhaps this is less true for primary school pupils, but it is likely to be the case when your child is at high school. There are no doubt a lot of reasons for this, like: your child only gets asked the question five hours after the bell for the end of the day has rung (which is a very long time for a Generation Y brain). It could be that your child wasn’t particularly interested in what they learned, or how they learned it; and therefore has not retained it. It could be that your child doesn’t like school and therefore doesn’t want to think about that miserable place when they don’t have to. Perhaps your child is just too tired to talk. The point is, that frighteningly, many parents do not actually know what their children are really learning at school, what values they are being subjected to and what attitudes (from the teachers and fellow pupils) are influencing them (again, perhaps for younger students this is less relevant because parents often have to help their children with their ever-increasingly complicated and burdensome school projects). I think this phenomenon is particularly true for ‘average’ (or the majority) of student’s parents. Of course the super stars (usually measured by their academic and/or sporting achievements) receive a lot of praise and recognition. The ‘trouble-makers’ (often picked out because of their relaxed attitude towards their school uniform and difficulty with time management, authority and rules) get noticed because they are in some way obstructing the well-oiled school system. Ironic, isn’t it, that we know so little about what our children are really being shaped in to, especially because a) they spend so much time there and b) because you spend so much money there!
For those persistent parents amongst you, you may have felt the need to phone a teacher or contact a school principal. If this is the case (unless at parents evening or your child is a super star or a ‘problem’, or perhaps unless you are paying exorbitant prices for private school or exclusive education) you may not even get a concrete answer about how your child is doing at school. At worst the school official may not even know who your child is, at best they might know what subjects your child takes and how they are performing in those subjects (according to standardized testing) and they will know what sports they play. But do they really know how your child is doing? How they are emotionally and psychologically, what their self-confidence is really like and what they think of the school system? I am not suggesting the school (and those who work in it) don’t care, what I am proposing is that in an overloaded, often under resourced, exhausted, often over populated, socially complicated, competitive and pressurized system, schools don’t have the time or the resources to ask. More likely, I think, they have never thought to ask, or they don’t want to ask, because this is the way it has always been done and that’s easier to deal with than change. This is unfortunate, since the students are the primary target market and the ones who will benefit (or not) from their experience at any given institution. It is also unfortunate because school (and the experience we have at school) makes such an impact on who we think we are; and sometimes, even what we think we are capable of.
So should be care what our kids are learning at school? Should we consider who is teaching them? Should we care whether or not the next generation thinks the school system; and what they learn at school, is beneficial for their future? Would it be too radical a statement to suggest that young people should be asked what information and skills they need to learn in order to equip them for the future, which we as adults cannot even begin to predict? Have you ever asked your child to describe their school experience? Have you ever asked your child how they feel while at school, what subjects they find most useful and why, what teachers they find most inspiring and why?
If students were given an opportunity to express their opinions and feelings about the school, their teachers, their subject choices, the curriculum, the skills they learn; and the values and attitudes they are exposed to, this might lead them to take more initiative, ownership and responsibility for their learning. What an amazing opportunity this would provide them with for skills they need in the workplace. It would also allow education departments to reform the school system, which, in my opinion, continues to be locked into archaic practices suited to a silo-like, predictable, hierarchical, mechanical manufacturing economy, which simply put is out-dated. I have often wondered, for example, how standardized, individualized testing prepares young people for the new world of work. As Sir Ken Robinson says at school there is only one answer; and it’s at the back of the book, but you are not allowed to look there, because that’s cheating. But then at work young people are expected to suddenly practice convergent, lateral; and solution-orientated thinking, which not surprisingly they are not always able to do, because they have never been taught how.
Clearly something in our school system is not working. Clients of mine constantly lament the fact that even graduates battle with basic learning principles like comprehension, analysis and the application of information, to speak nothing of the lack of skills like spelling, grammar, summarizing of information, extracting information, taking initiative and taking responsibility for their work progress. As a generation I believe Generation Y are creative, curious, innovative, socially conscious and caring (as well as ambitious) but tragically the workplace doesn’t give them an opportunity to show off these qualities, because they cannot get the other, better known, ‘basics’ right. And in all this I have not even touched on our youth’s emotional wellbeing. In a social system, which does not teach, encourage or support self-esteem, we expect young people to be able to cope with the stress and magnitude of life, which lets face it, we as adults are not coping particularly well with. Surely we should be asking students for ideas on more effective ways of teaching?
Jim Clifton (CEO of Gallup) has just brought out a book called ‘The Coming Jobs War’. The book describes how ‘jobs are the new currency for leaders’. In other words, in whatever industry or capacity, the leaders of the future will be those who create jobs. The problem with our current global leadership is that they don’t have the magic formula for job creation (despite what Mitt Romney might think of himself). Entrepreneurship and small to medium size businesses, and not government and big business, are and will be the saviours of our financial future and the creators of employment in the future, but does our education system support the skills and competencies needed for this? Youth unemployment is at the highest it has ever been globally. 51% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed, which is double the national unemployment rate. An increasing number of young South Africans rely on grants, with the number of people receiving benefits having increased by 300% in the last nine years. This is a hugely worrying statistic for an already stressed economy; and the longer our youth stay unemployed, the more unemployable they will become.
Imagine belonging to a generation who grew up in a healthy economy with huge expectations and then emerging into the workplace plagued by recession. I can only empathize with their disappointment and frustration. I know as decision makers in a corporate South Africa you cannot reform the school system, but perhaps within your organization you can assist young people with personal and skills development programs (even if that means drawing on your internal resources) like formal mentorship programs and world café-style conversations, which can at least stimulate internal relationships and will hopefully give you insights into what is really needed to get the best out of your new arrivals.