Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Corridor Myth in Teen Education

When we were still trying to make a go of MOGwee Inc (a private, C- corporate aiming to create a marketplace of one-on-one, inspiring chat), my colleagues and I believed that creative, inspiring, one-on-one chats would find a home inside of secondary schools. I personally wrote to more than 400 secondary social studies teachers in Arlington, Bethesda, Brooklyn, Palo Alto, Austin and Ann Arbor-- cities where I thought, if anywhere, teachers would be pushing students to chat with a Khmer Rouge survivor, or with a first-time Afghan voter, or with an Ebola-treating medic.

I tried reaching ambitious high-schoolers from multiple angles-- from their Boy and Girl Scout troops to their churches to their school administrators and parents-- only to be pushed back with the same messages. That wouldn't fit into our curriculum. We really don't have time. My son's so busy with sports and clubs. His APs are taking all his time. Would there be any credit for doing this? Translation: School defines what teenagers prioritize, not teens.

The rhetoric of secondary education: We are preparing young people to get into college.

The myth of secondary education: There is only one way forward. The smartest and most ambitious teens believe they are moving down a narrow, segmented corridor with many bolted doors; they must satisfy without question the demands of every gatekeeper to advance to the next segment of the corridor. As they advance through each door, the inane and discontinuous demands of each gatekeeper are apparent. But that doesn't deter them, especially if they and their parents are aspiring and hard-working. PSAT? check. National Merit? check. AP tests? check. SAT? check. Entry essays about self-awareness and changing the world? check.

Teens believe they are moving along a narrow corridor,
divided in segments with bolted doors between. To pass
to the next segment, they must fulfill the tasks
assigned by the gatekeeper. 

Talking to 20-somethings casts a new light on the problems that teen tunnel-vision creates down the road. Within one or two years of high school graduation, many young people are caught off guard by the question of what they will do with themselves; the same adults who have given them no agency in their schedule, classes, reading, suddenly expect an inspired life-decision. Many move through college in a continuing auto-pilot of ticking-boxes, satisfying requirements, trying to keep parents and instructors happy. A few years later they see that even happy parents and instructors have no further guidance, no idea how the next leap will work.

And it's the later-20-somethings who have taken off their blinders, cast a glance back along the path they traveled, and realize that they could have come to the place where they're standing now by a thousand different ways. The corridor is a fiction. Getting out would have been as easy as taking a step to the side. And outside the corridor is a vast field to run, to zig-zag, to tumble down or to surge in any direction.

I have offered this metaphor to school administrators and students to try to visualize a behavior that I think is harming our young people. I don't believe that teens are inherently narrow-minded and self-constraining-- quite the opposite. This is a learned behavior at odds with the instinctive rebellious, sarcastic, destructive, creative, risk-taking nature of teens. But the corridor is a socially revered construct, which adults having emerged from it, disillusioned, go on to reconstruct for their own children. How do many young adults stay on their parents' health insurance? Go to college. What kinds of expenses are eligible for tax-preferred college savings accounts? Full-time enrollment at an accredited university. When could college savings accounts provide for housing? When the young person is full-time enrolled at college. When HR officers click the drop-down menu to identify your highest level of education attained, and there are only 3 or 4 options, what is the baseline she's looking for? A 4-year college degree.

Is it any wonder, then, that our brightest, most ambitious young people are collectively brainwashed from about 14-25, believing their lives to be a narrow corridor? And parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, whether they really believe the myth or not, carefully maintain and rationalize it. We are building a foundation. They are learning how to learn. They are learning to take responsibility. They are becoming leaders and thinkers. Few will say that the corridor itself infantilizes young people, removes agency, risk, consequences, and any interaction with the real world. Baby hawks and polar bears are more prepared for the roles they will have to play as grown-ups than our young people.

Breaking the corridor-illusion is not about exposing children to risk or 'leaving them behind', it's really about breaking the monopolistic hold of universities on the American imagination and the American income. It's about calling college what it is--a consumer product. It's about admitting that teens are really very unique and will naturally move in a million different directions when given the opportunity. Secondary education is not a corridor, because by the time young people are 14, 15, 16, it gets harder and harder to argue credibly that there are universal standards, universally useful knowledge. It's a field-- wide and rolling -- with possibilities that parents, teachers and counselors can't anticipate. And mentoring young people to find their own zig-zagging paths is something more difficult, but necessary, to raise capable adults. 

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