A quality education addresses the needs and wants of students now and empowers them to become successful for an uncertain future.
As a parent and teacher, one of the big questions that consistently goes through my head is ‘what do we need to teach our kids?’
And for some time, the answers have made me start to really question what we do as teachers.
As teachers we teach a whole lot of lessons about the world and everything that has happened and been discovered for centuries. And that all seems like tremendous knowledge that I really want my son to know about.
But, is this mountain of knowledge really going to help him and the future generations navigate life on Earth in the 21 century?
I’m starting to believe, as some of the influences I’ve been studying, that the education system needs to change. The world is changing and we can’t afford an education system that’s stuck with an outdated understanding of knowledge and capabilities.
So, what should we teach?
Given these concerns, what should we teach, if we consider what we are teaching is in some way deficient?
The scope of this article is not aiming to cover the whole gamut of how education should change — though over time I plan to investigate a few major issues.
For today, I want to look at perhaps the most important thing that we really need to teach — and it’s not being taught very well — for a very ‘understandable’ reason.
What’s not being taught?
The things that children are interested in.
In no particular order:
- Global fears
- Identity formation
- Growing up
- Fitting in
These ‘things’ are some of the very serious needs, wants, concerns and fears that kids have, and they are not really being addressed by schools.
Now I know we do try. All schools I’ve been in have tutor groups and pastoral lessons and care programs. And of course parents want their children to do well and to be well adjusted and ready to succeed in the future.
However, how many of us are really prepared or capable of dealing with many of the problems and issues students have to confront today?
It’s one thing to say bullying, social media, sex ed., technology, identity formation and so on are important — it’s quite another to actually address these issues in a meaningful and effective way.
And for schools, are there the programs, materials and training for teachers, parents and counselors to put in place to educate students about their very real lives?
And then, when does this happen?
When is the time to deal with the actual issues that students want to know about and the things they deal with.
Maybe your school does have a pastoral or home group. Is that a productive time? Or is it more like the twenty minute check the diary, check homework, check uniform, give notices and then let them gossip type of homerooms that I’ve experienced? (And I’m not throwing stones, I’m totally guilty too.)
I would assume that most likely very little time is spent in the daily timetable on the very real issues that students actually want and need to learn about.
How do students adjust and find their voice, when they have to deal with the issues of teen life and the constant demands of the curriculum and the tyranny of the test?
What to teach our kids
So, as a start — what do teens want to know about? What is of vital importance to them? And thus, what should we be teaching them?
To begin with, we turn to The 10 Things Teens Fear Most by Parentology. This is an enlightening article that lays out many of the major issues that teens are dealing with. By looking at their fears, we can see what they really need and what they want to know.
Obviously there is a lot more to consider going forward, and I don’t want to rely just on one source. However, as a start Parentology gives us a good, and seemingly well researched, outline of what teens are really concerned about.
They start with:
“While child psychology has shown that teenagers are at the stage in their development where they may feel invincible or fearless, studies show they aren’t big risk takers. And, in fact, teenagers have some very real, very legitimate fears.”
And I think we are often drawn into this false image of teens. I know I do with my students. I tend to fall into the trap of thinking they’re all rebellious little trouble makers who just want to play games and fool around.
However, as I start to watch more and really observe with a truly empathetic perspective, I can start to see that really a lot of the ‘rebellious’ behavior, things like laziness, procrastination, conflict with authority, work avoidance and so on, is not teen rebellion at all. Generally, it is a response to fear and the preserved threat of failing.
Fear in education
Far from being invincible, our students, in many cases, are fearful of not being able to cope, of looking stupid, of doing the wrong thing, of being ostracized and so on.
Do we as teachers take this into account?
Absolutely! We know how daunting school can be. And I for one know that I couldn’t achieve anything with my classes without the safe sharing tactics I learned in my teacher prac.
But do we teach students how to deal with these problems themselves?
Maybe. I’d love to hear what you teachers, or parents, have to say on this issue.
However, guided by my own observations and on the research, there is clearly a gap.
So what are our students most concerned about?
1. Peer Pressure/Not Fitting In
“One of the most difficult parts of adolescence is navigating the complex social life as a teenager. Teens can often feel peer pressured into engaging in more adult behaviors like experimenting with sex and drugs. In a survey from Stage of Life, 40% of teens reported fearing peer pressure. The angst of not fitting in could easily lead to feelings of increased anxiety and depression. Roberto Rodriguez, 17, reveals that his biggest fear in life is ‘honestly, the feeling of being left out, like, by my friends.’”
The fear of fitting in. Obvious! And we know all about it. And we probably still feel this as adults, but not with the same urgency and paralyzing need to conform as children. And I would suggest that we do acknowledge this and we do do a bit to help.
However, if we take a meta view of the school day, we can see that we throw these kids all together, then we ask them to do a whole lot of work, sometimes in groups, and we tell them to go and play and socialize, and all this comes before kids are really taught how to fit in and how to process peer pressure, or how to form relationships, or any of that.
Yes, I know many schools have camps and programs, but I don’t tend to see a real proactive effort to educate how to overcome the issues of socialization.
Socialization in education
For most, this might not be a massive problem, but we need to recall that these students are often now more accustomed to socializing via technology and are maybe not so sure of how to interact in face to face environments.
Also, we are probably well aware of the differences between introverted and extroverted personalities, however, the school day does not really accommodate any difference, which could lead to a lot of stress for some.
We also know from the statistics above that students are stressed and living in fear, some of whom resolve that fear in less than productive ways.
Maybe we need to start making this more of a priority. Especially if we are looking at the future knowledge worker environment as being more fluid, interactive, collaborative and creative.
(No one knows what the future will look like, but you can read about some obvious trends here in an article I wrote: How to Prepare for the Future and Develop the Skills You Need.)
2. Sex Education
If you don’t think your teen is thinking about sex, then you need to wake up.
It is probably the most important and interesting thing that they are thinking about. And for many it will fill up huge amounts of their time and their energy.
And not just, ‘should I, shouldn’t I?’, but the whole realm of does he like me, am I desirable, how do I express my feelings, what does it mean … and so on.
“Unfortunately, sex education is woefully inadequate in the US. It’s a difficult subject for many parents to broach, but if you learn how to talk with your teen about sex, it will ensure that if they do become sexually active, they’ll be safe and comfortable when it happens.”
This is most likely the same all over the world. Not the safe and comfortable, the awkward and not broached part. In fairness, many schools do address the mechanics of it all in health class, or some equivalent.
But kids know the mechanics. Again, if you don’t think kids know about sex, just search on line.
It’s everywhere, just look at the music videos they are watching. Look at the pins on Pinterest, look at the photo and video sharing apps they are all using these days.
Plus it is a natural function of the body. Teens have the bits, and they know what they do, and they want to try them out.
However, what they aren’t getting is the whole gamut of emotional, identity, personality, self-esteem, relationship, gender and spiritual lessons that are absolutely tied up with sex.
We don’t teach this stuff.
And that’s what they need to know.
No wonder they’re distracted, when they are thinking about how every action is being perceived from the point of view of sexual attraction.
This lack of education is a problem.
But again, how many teachers or parents have any training in dealing with this awkward topic?
I know I have none. None other than experience, and to be honest, experience does not make me feel qualified to educate students about these very serious, life defining issues.
“Whether it’s tests, auditions, dating, or life in general, teens fear failure — just like adults. Many simply don’t want to disappoint their parents, friends, teachers, or themselves. Fear of failure is a pervasive emotion for teenagers, and contributes to much of the depression and anxiety that teens are diagnosed with each year.”
Fear of failure is absolutely real — and it’s huge.
Even now I dread having performance reviews and the like.
And I feel maybe that’s why so many people are reluctant to become life-long learners; once they’ve survived all that dreaded grading, weighing, measuring and testing, who would put themselves through that again?
However, we who know our own distaste for testing put vulnerable kids into the position of being tested, ‘on things that will determine their whole future’. And we wonder why they are stressed, or they avoid, or they turn to rebellion or substances, and so on.
They are stressed by the fear of failure — As I was and would be if I were in their shoes again.
Far from stressing kids out, we should be empowering them and teaching them how to deal with difficulty, and teaching that failure is part of the path to success. However, I fear that is far from the message students are getting. I fear they are stressed out to the max trying not to let anyone down.
I’m not saying we do away with tests. I actually believe my ability to survive my year 12 exams and Uni exams have made me a lot stronger and a lot more capable of producing quality under very tight time constraints. We don’t want to see a reduction in standards.
Exams actually train us to be able to perform, or express our knowledge in a structured way so that we can communicate on a very high level with others.
However, do we spend the time teaching kids this understanding?
Do we give them the tools to develop their mental and emotional strength to deal with the stress of exams — or the stress of any major performance.
I think we do to a degree, though I don’t know that it’s something that we as standard practice.
But when it comes to other areas of life, like recitals and dating, and so on. I don’t think that’s something we teach much at all. How to deal with failure in life is something that should be taught and something we could be doing better.
4. Climate Change Education
Parentology argues this point as follows:
“Recent studies show that in the UK and other parts of Europe, teens fear climate change as much as they do terrorism. American teens share those fears as well, since they will be expected to solve the crisis.”
For many of us climate change is an issue we debate. However, for a younger generation set to inherit the Earth, I can see why they have very serious concerns.
This is also a very sobering thought.
Far from being little hooligans who just want to fool around, this shows that many kids are actually really interested in the world and are feeling the responsibility of the leadership role they will take into the future.
And to be fair, I do believe schools do provide opportunities for this kind of learning and exploration.
However, what we don’t teach is the mindset that it takes to deal with these very big problems.
We focus on the science and the politics and the semantics of it all, but do we ever consider the emotional or psychological effects and issues raised by the fear of a possibly doomed future.
Maybe I’m painting too gloomy a picture. However, I see at school each year the message of climate destruction — the plastic island in the sea, the hole in the ozone layer, the destruction of the forests, the extinction of rare animals, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.
Each year the conscientious and globally thinking students get together and make a big push, and they do make a little impact, but then year after year the story is the same.
I’m not surprised that some students are feeling fear for the possible future they will have.
And it’s these thoughts and these fears that are never addressed. We certainly pose all the problems, but we can’t offer any certainty about what to do.
In fact we often say we don’t have the answers, but you guys will need to work it out. How? By magic?
No wonder they’re worried.
5. Education about MONEY
“Teens, even those who aren’t in the workforce, have seen and felt the effects of the rising costs of living coupled with stagnant wages. Many of them have witnessed it with their parents, and 56.4% of teens surveyed by Stage of Life expressed that trying to earn enough money for themselves or their families is high on their list of fears. Parents teaching kids about money — and letting them make mistakes with it — can help.”
Money is a worry for many of us. And furthermore, the whole discourse of what money is, how to make money, how to understand money, use it and invest it to generate wealth — none of this is taught.
It is taught in later years in Business and Economics, but the actual practical approach to how to earn money, save it, invest it, build it into a business is never really taught.
Schools’ Main Message about Money
Then against this, there is the message, ‘get good grades, a good job, and you’ll be fine’. But what about the fact most kids don’t know what job they want to do. Or that many of the jobs they might be thinking of will no longer exist. And what about AI and robots? And then there’s outsourcing and trade wars and charity drives to help the homeless.
I think you get the point — kids are looking at a huge world related to money and monetary responsibility, and they’re not really being trained for any of that. But they are told how competitive life is, and they are taught to fear the drop.
No wonder there’s some fear and confusion.
I believe these really are the kinds of lessons students would like to learn and we should be teaching them — before they get Algebra, Shakespeare and the Science lab.
(Again, I am generalizing from what I have read and what I have seen. I know it’s not a total epidemic of horror standards. And I’m aware there are many great programs out there. But I don’t see it as part of the standard recognized curriculum for enlightening and empowering our workers and economic and business leaders of the future.)
6. Education for The Future and Growing Up
All that has just been said rolls straight into Parentology’s next point.
“Today’s teens worry about a lot more than the hottest new song or going to prom. Aside from real quagmires like climate change and social revolution, teens fear an uncertain future. They’re still dreaming of college, life after graduation and their career paths, but they fear what’s beyond the comfort of their teenage years. Adulting is hard, and they know it. If you can recall being a teenager yourself, allay their fears with some parental words of wisdom.”
How do you become an adult?
I know I, for one, had no idea what that meant. And I didn’t know how to deal with the whole thing. So I went to Leavers and blew off steam and spent a lot of my years at Uni experimenting and drinking way too much, not dealing with the responsibilities or the serious questions.
Once upon a time, society told young people what it meant to be an adult. They learned from their parents. Then they went through an initiation and they were recognized as adults.
Now days the world is so far changed, with very little belief in any grand narratives of anything, so when kids get to adulthood they’re just expected to work it out.
Should we perhaps have a better way to prepare students for the big changes and the stages of life?
“Bullying is no longer limited to schoolyard scuffles. Now, contemporary teens must worry about bullying in the real world and online. A 2018 Pew Research study found that 59 percent of US teens have been bullied or harassed online. Cyberbullying has become a growing problem due to the rise of social media.”
We all know that this is an issue.
And every school, I would imagine, is addressing this issue.
However, is the message getting through?
It doesn’t look like it. I mean that 59% was from 2018, not the bad old dark ages of the grungy 1990's.
And why do students get bullied? Why do students bully?
We know the basic psychology. And we also know that the lip service care programs that reinforce to students that ‘bullying is bad’, get laughed at. (Well at least from what I’ve seen.)
And the message to the bullied students to seek help, is not really helpful.
Again, I know I’m generalizing, but I’ve seen enough of these programs tried and the behavior simply continue to know that something is wrong.
I personally believe that bullies don’t want to bully. And I know no one wants to put themselves up as a victim to be targeted.
A problem of socializing
There is a disconnect in how students, and society as a whole, socializes. And again, are we ever taught explicitly how to behave in public, how to treat people, etiquette and moral responsibility. All that stuff that goes with character and interpersonal communication and relationships.
(And let’s not even get down to how to behave in romantic relationships — though given the persistence of domestic violence we really must soon.)
I don’t know what the solution is exactly. But I do know that throwing hundreds of students together and giving them a bunch or rules that apply some of the time, applied by authority and never agreed to by the applicants, is not the way to build a community of trust. And that is what is needed. When there is trust, people don’t need to persecute others to get power and the persecuted have trust that they are not powerless.
However, that kind of community and relationship takes time and trained professionals to develop. For a huge organization like a school to develop the kind of tight-knit, open, safe and friendly environment where bullying and other social issues are minimized, there needs to be a real concerted effort to build that into the schools DNA. It needs to be of central importance from the leaders all the way down to the support staff.
But who has the time and the training to develop those kind of relationships?
I don’t have the training. However, the fear of my son being bullied one day is ensuring that I’m learning now and beginning to lay down the ground work to build his personal strength and resilience to deal with difficult relationships — at both school and life beyond.
8. Lost Identity Education
Identity is another big issue of education these days.
We imagine school is the place where kids find themselves and grow into the beings they are ‘supposed’ to be.
Parentology addresses this as follows:
“Teenagers are generally in a hurry to grow up. On the cusp of adulthood, they tend to struggle with finding themselves during this formative time. From what we know about the teenage brain, when teens lose their pre-adolescent self they’re in desperate need of a new identity. (How many of us knew exactly who we were at 15?)
While many of our personality traits don’t fully evolve until later as adults, many teens are torn between knowing who they want to be and finding who they really are. This can include exploring their gender identity and/or sexuality.”
So this is obviously a massive issue for teens. However, how many parents or teachers, or anyone, really takes the time or the initiative to educate kids about how to find their identity.
And again, who has the time and the training.
But what I would suggest is that if we had the proper programs to teach this in a very meaningful way, I believe kids would want to learn and I know that it would be of absolute value to them to help them work out who they are and where they are going.
But we don’t broach these subjects.
We may deconstruct characters in English, or get to some ideas of gender politics, but how do we really guide a kid to help them navigate the great unknown of identity?
The big problem I see is for the kids that grow up with a false identity — e.g. ‘I’m not a confident person’, ‘I’m not good at this or that’, ‘I’m not a leader’, or ‘what’s wrong with me, I’m not gay, I can’t be…’ and so on.
How can they know their identity when they’ve never actually had any chance to work out or decide who they are or who they want to be? They have never really had any guided experiences that help them develop into the kind of person they want to be.
(Again, I know I’m generalizing — and I have seen some great programs, however, I feel they are the exception and very much an add on and not part of the core practice of education.)
The education solution
This is difficult. And at this stage, perhaps it does come down to trial and error. Then if so, would it not be the responsibility of school, the place where teens spend most of their time, to offer a safe place for experimentation.
To give the opportunity for students to learn more about identity as a central, and seriously important element of their lives, in a safe and supported place where they know who to see if they have questions.
Unfortunately, I see schools more as places of rules, geared towards producing uniform academics — not about encouraging students to find their identity, their purpose; in short their voice.
(For more about what I mean by voice, which is actually a term coined by Dr Stephen Covey, see my article Follow your Passion and Find Your Voice.)
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not slinging mud at teachers and schools. I’m just as guilty of perpetrating these problems— but again, who has the time and the training to get too inventive when there’s testing, grading, reporting and planning to do?
9. Safety in Education
A safe place for experimenting is where we can form identity, but how can we make this part of the standard school experience when a physical safe place can’t be guaranteed?
“With an increase in bullying, assaults, school shootings, and other violent acts perpetrated across the US in recent years, teenagers are afraid. These kids shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when just getting an education is difficult enough.”
Now in my experiences I’ve never seen too much violence or serious acts of bullying and intimidation. However, even in relatively safe schools, students can feel vulnerable. Not every student, maybe not even a large proportion, however, schools and society in general can be a scary place when you are the weak and you’re surrounded by the strong.
Being in the minority, you might fear the power of the herd.
Being the less physically developed, you will most likely avoid the strong and dominant physical beings.
And I my first experiences as a prac teacher. I remember walking into a year 10 and year 11 classes, full of growing lads and girls with attitude, and I felt intimidated.
Since then I’ve grown used to it and I no longer feel that. However, what if you were a vulnerable teen, how might you feel walking into a class full of groups, and kids that are more imposing than you. Would that be a place to take risks, put your hand up and strive to stand out? I think not.
The problem is that that kind of fear can be internalized and become traits later in life. And when it comes time to be the confident, creative, inspired risk taker and team member of the modern knowledge work place, those learned fears are not going to embolden them to success.
What this does to concentration, identity formation, confidence and so on is one for the psychologists, but we can perhaps see that schools are not always the safe and nurturing places we like to imagine.
(Once again, sorry for the generalizations and the stereotypes. I may be completely wrong, I’m just going with the research of others and the personal experiences I’ve had. I’d love to hear what you think.)
10. Embarrassment and Education
Number 10 and the last for now. There is, I’m sure, much more students worry about and are concerned about and really want to know, but that will need a book to fill.
But according to Parentology’s research:
“If there’s one fear that teens can agree on, it’s being embarrassed in front of their peers. Teens hurl dreaded ridicule from the lunchrooms to the chatrooms, and anyone unlucky enough to do something embarrassing in the digital age will be doomed to relive their embarrassment online for all eternity.”
This is a fact of life for many. Even in the lovely leafy-green schools I’ve been in recently, I’ve been absolutely shocked by some of the things that kids say to and about each other; some truly savage and cutting comments.
This is usually not so bad in ‘real life’. The real life bullying is what we have experience with and I think we’re doing a lot to make schools safer places. However, when we delve into the ‘online lives’ of our students, we can see that this is a true reality of student life in the 21st Century.
Fear of the Social Media
And from my recent experiences diving into social media I can now empathize with the experience of these kids.
Social media is addictive — we post and then we are drawn, pulled, actually dragged to check. ‘Did they like, did they share, did anyone follow’, and so on. Even for adults on a rather intellectual site like Medium, I’m sure many would know the feeling of desperately checking their stats to see for updates.
Well what happens when the worst is not silence? What happens when the people you want to like you reject you, or they say something horrible, or they completely turn on you?
That’s enough to keep you up all night replying and feeling the pain associated with acceptance. (One of our most important social needs.)
And what if, heaven forbid, we do something stupid to invite that kind of reaction.
It’s my guess that many students walk this tight rope every day. The thin line between putting it out there and becoming ‘Insta-famous’ or making a mistake and being a ‘Facebook failure’.
Stuck between these needs — to stand out but to fit in — is a dangerous and stressful place to be.
And then what happens when it all goes wrong, and we don’t have the maturity and the coping mechanisms to negotiate, navigate or handle conflict and the failure of embarrassment and rejection?
A scary place!
And when the alarm clock goes off and these students have to put on a brave face and walk into the public again — I can only imagine how scary that might feel.
Given this, is it any wonder students are struggling to keep ‘normal, healthy’ lifestyles and to concentrate on their academic work?
Again I generalize, but I do feel that this one is a big one that everyone will need to deal with.
For me, I’m throwing myself into the online world because I see it as the way of the future. My students need to know it, my son will need to know it and anyone who wants to be a future success will need to know how to ‘live’ here.
And it can be a scary place.
“As parents, we should encourage our teens to accept those embarrassing moments. Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, stresses that “being embarrassed is part of life.”
That is very easy to say.
I know I, for one, am not dying to be embarrassed any time soon; especially at school. And I’m the big, tough, manly teacher who shouldn’t care. But when you live a social life in a place day after day, we all know it’s important to save face and fit in. Even for those in authority. And maybe especially for those who are popular — the view is on them and they know one slip is a painful social ‘death’.
This kind of teaching, that embarrassment is a part of life, I do totally agree is essential. But who has the time and who has the training?
I’m all for students studying practical psychology — learning all about our mental and social processes and how to give meaning to them in a positive and healthy way — a kind of successful mindset training. But for now I don’t know too many who have the training. And for the moment, though it could change, I don’t see the powers that be opening up more hours in the school week for something so ‘soft-skilled’ as human psychology.
However I would suggest that this is exactly the skills that will be needed for future success — and I am absolutely determined to teach this stuff to my son.
I’ve included the links that Parentology supplied, and for the most part this research seems to be reliable. From what I can see, these do reflect what teens are concerned about, what they want to know about, and from my perspective, the things that we should probably be spending more time teaching them about.
Stage of Life
Guttmacher Institute — Fewer U.S. Teens Are Receiving Formal Sex Education Now Than in the Past
Pew study on climate change
Psychology Today — Teens fearing the future
Pew study on bullying
Psychology Today — The teenage brain
Education Success: What do we teach our Kids?
We started with this question.
And again this is a huge topic that could, does and will continue to fill books. And again it will be a subject full of generalizations and stereotypes and contested ideas all the way along.
For me, as a parent and an educator, I need to think about education as the process that gives us the knowledge and the skills to succeed in life.
This approach is what keeps me learning every day and makes me a life long learner ready to learn, relearn and unlearn in a continual process that keeps me looking to find success. This for me is the key to enlightenment, empowerment and inspiration.
So what do our kids need to learn to find success in their lives?
I believe we need to stop tuning out their present lives in favor of a perceived academic future that we dream of for every single student. I believe that this ‘tuning-out’ of the current needs and wants of students leads to many of the problems we see in adulthood and in the wider society.
We need to teach students how to learn to empower their lives and then they too will be empowered to be life long learners and they can solve many of their problems. Better still they can start on a path to finding their identity, their purpose and their voice.
Then they can decide what future they want and attack it with optimism and passion and become the super successful, well adjusted little super heroes we all want them to be.
Again, these are just my ideas and I know they are over generalized and only half thought through, and in desperate need of formal research. So please feel free to take them with a grain of salt, or to completely disregard them.
Thanks for allowing me to share and as always, my wish is that you strive for and ultimately gain whatever success you envision for your life.
Originally published at https://success24x7.com on July 19, 2019.