Pro-Choice (allowing students to make choices about professions in high school)

Originally posted April 4, 2014 on my blog Education Outrage

I have been writing about high school and what is wrong with it for many years. My articles on why all the subjects we teach are absurd and why the curriculum is tremendously outdated are easy enough to find. Often people respond to what I have written by asking what we should have instead. So, here I propose a simple answer. One we can implement, and one we can gradually get into the schools.

(Pardon me for calling this Pro-Choice (by which I mean professional choices for kids.) Yes, I know the term means something else. But I like it in this context.)

My premise is that high school should be a time in which one figures out what kinds of things one can do in life that would be just right for you. This idea has been around for a long time but used in exactly the wrong way. “We must teach chemistry in high school so we can expose children to chemistry to see if they want to be chemists” is the standard argument. It didn’t take me a year of high school chemistry to know I didn’t want to be a chemist. Had we had what I am proposing, my decision would have been even easier. (And I had to take two years of college chemistry too. Believe I knew long before then, but schools just love requirements.) In the school I am proposing there are no requirements. Just professional choices.

I happen to have spent some time with a chemist at Proctor and Gamble a few years back. He was inventing a new bleach. Let us imagine for a moment that Proctor and Gamble funded the building of three week chemistry learn by doing experience that included seeing what chemists actually do at P&G, talking to this man about why loves what he does, and actually doing some of these things in simulation. After three weeks a student would know if this was for him or her and if they wanted more of it, or if they wanted to try out something else.

Years ago we built a simulated firefighter course (at Northwestern’s Institute for the Learning Sciences). Suppose we allowed high schools kids to try out being firefighters in simulation for a few weeks. They might even talk to their local firefighters during that same time. In those days, we also built simulations about how to run an EPA public meeting and about how to plan an air force campaign. If we had build a version that kids could try, they would know if that kind of career was for them after a short while.

You say you want to be a lawyer? Why not try a case in simulation? Do contract work too, to see that being a lawyer is not all "Law and Order."

You are thinking about being a doctor?. Be one in simulation. Talk to simulated patients. Do some lab work. Read an MRI. Tell a patient he has cancer (all in simulation of course.) Also, kids could help out in a real local hospital for a few days.

Why shouldn’t GE help us build a three week simulation of what it is like to be an Engineer? Why shouldn’t IBM help us build a simulation of what it is like to be a computer consultant? Why shouldn’t one of the political parties help us build a simulation of what it is like to be legislator or a campaign director? Why shouldn’t Turner Construction help us build a simulation of what kinds of jobs there are in construction and see if they’d be any fun to do?

I am naming particular companies here because I believe the only way education will change is if the big corporations which can easily afford to do help us do this and would benefit from it, helped provide students choices.

How many should their be? Hundreds. A student’s life could simply be trying stuff out, talking to experts, and going on to the next until they were pretty sure about what they wanted to learn more about.

We have built many of these already. Many of them are in health sciences and in computer programming and in entrepreneurship.

Now. How do we get them to the kids?

No one will allow us to eliminate the nonsense that permeates high school today, but there are electives available to seniors and there are summer schools and camps and their are after school programs. Eventually maybe we can eliminate the entire last semester of high school and replace it with simulated activates that inform kids about what they might like to try in the future.

My long term plan, of course, is have this become high school, gradually replacing what is there.

What is there can easily go. If you actually needed algebra you could learn it in context. (It might be embedded where an advanced engineering simulation when a student was building a bridge or deigning an airplane. (Although I must admit I had this conversation with Boeing for high school aerospace engineering and they couldn’t find a real need for algebra there either.)

English literature? Needed for nothing (except sounding like an intellectual.) However, as literature teachers would say that literature is about making life decisions, I have no problem with many making life decisions simulations being part of the choices here. Writing is needed all the time however, so each simulation should involved writing that is the type actually done in that simulation (legal briefs, medical opinions, police reports etc.)

All of education needs to involve planning, diagnosis, judgment, predication, and experimentation (as I have said in my Teaching Minds book). These cognitive processes must be woven into each and every simulated experience we build.

High school must change. Computers and the Internet allow us to make the change now. We need to think about enabling choices for students and creating individuals who know what they want to do and have trued it out before they finish high school.

We have built many of these kinds of simulations already and will offer them to anyone who wants to try them. We need money to build more. (All of this is being done my my not for profit: Engines for Education.)

©2017 Roger Schank