Preparing Students for Life?
Recently, I was invited to deliver a vision-based process of life planning to the 11th-grade students at Bancroft School (Massachusetts) — essentially helping them to think about who they might want to be as adults. What emerged out of my experience were a number of observations and related questions that have become the impetus for this article. I am coming to the conclusion that how these questions are addressed may have significant implications for the future of independent secondary education and students' future. I say this as a parent of two children who have gone through secondary school, as a former secondary school trustee, and as a professional life coach. The premise here is my belief that more and more young people are leaving home, high school, and even college unsure about who they are and where they are headed and, as a result, are overly influenced and vulnerable to outside forces, including peer groups and the media. I know I'm not alone in my thinking. In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling, William Damon writes, "In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12- to 22-year age range express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. Almost 60 percent may have engaged in some potentially purposeful activities, or they may have developed some vague aspirations; but they do not have any real commitment to such activities or any realistic plans for pursuing their aspirations." My hope is that my experiences will resonate with educators and that some of you will want to join me in a conversation about how we can better prepare our children to become more responsible for their own lives in an increasingly challenging world. In particular, my hope is that, as a graduation requirement, each secondary school student will have formulated a vision of his or her future and have prepared a plan, even if it's just a tentative one, for how he or she will begin to move toward that future. At the outset, I want to acknowledge the excellent efforts many schools are making to prepare students for their individual futures. In the college search process, good college counselors help students focus on their interests and find colleges that will help develop those interests. Some schools offer excellent internship programs that connect students with professionals in various fields. Experiential education programs — from outdoor learning to global travel programs — often help students discover their talents and interests through targeted activities and trips. An increasing number of schools require community service programs of one kind or another that help students see their own lives in a broader social context. And many schools offer students an opportunity to focus, at least to some degree, on their individual interests — such as music, art, writing, or science. Bancroft School, the school I know best, has an interesting Senior Cooperative (Co-op) program that combines elements of a professional internship, a research project, and community service. While much is being done, however, I believe that as parents and educators we can increase the effectiveness of these efforts by considering alternative approaches to preparing our students for the challenges and opportunities they will face later in life. The following story is a good illustration of this.
The Life-Planning Seminar
This is the story of an innovative collaboration that began in the fall of 2009 when I approached an independent secondary school with a program that seemed to align well with the school's unique mission and culture. In reality, our collaboration began several years earlier when I, as a parent, served on the board of trustees and as the parent faculty association liaison to the headmaster. Later, I served as liaison to the upper school head when my son was a senior. These experiences afforded me a unique opportunity to gain intimate knowledge of the school's mission, core values, and operational principles. When I learned that the school had recently completed a visioning exercise resulting in a desire "to transition from a comfortable, home-grown environment to a more professional entity that operates more like a business with world-class processes and out-of-the-box thinking," I believed that this would be a good time to introduce a vision-based life-planning process. In particular, as a professional life coach, I was aware of the possible disconnect between the short-term action steps adults laid out for students (e.g., college selection) and the development of a long-term plan for the students' futures. These thoughts began to coalesce into preliminary questions. How are we preparing our students for the future? What is being done at the secondary school level to prepare students for work, citizenship, and the world — to prepare students to truly own their own future and the challenges they will face? Is there a way to improve these efforts?
The Strategic Futuring Process
The life-planning process introduced to the initial group of students is based on a vision-based planning process known as "Strategic Futuring™." Essentially, it introduces students to the idea that they can begin to choose their futures by asking themselves a small number of strategic questions. For several years, I have been delivering life-planning seminars and coaching individuals in various stages of the career-life transition, including students in transition from college to career, employees moving up in their careers, and professional women reentering the workforce. I was now eager to apply this approach to secondary school students just beginning to think about who they are and want to be in the future. In my experience, both professionally and personally with my own children, I have found that too much emphasis in high schools is being placed on college selection with minimal thought given to the big picture of life beyond college. In this life-planning seminar, I asked students to consider a series of questions: Who am I and where have I come from? Where am I today? What are my questions about the future? Where do I see myself in the future? What is my plan for moving toward my future? What is my support and accountability system? The power of the process is based upon the tested belief that we are capable of increasing the likelihood of achieving our dreams when we have a vision that we treat as a fact (rather than hope) and, more important, when we begin to plan according to our vision. The process begins with an exercise in which students assess their current and desired approaches to the future and reflect on their past satisfying experiences. They are then encouraged to identify and reflect on specific opportunities and challenges they face today and the choices that those opportunities and challenges represent. The orientation then begins to shift to the future as students identify their most pressing questions when looking beyond five years. Next, I led the students through a visioning exercise in which they picture a day in their lives well into the future. They are guided to envision life after college and early in their professional careers. Then I ask them to write down specific events and milestones that occurred at the time, based on what they envisioned. Students then draft a career ("life") action plan with goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound (SMART goals).1 Finally, students identify one or two people they would choose to support them and motivate them to work on their goals as they move toward their future.
What We Learned
In a short six-hour seminar, 50 high school juniors learned how to pause and reflect, clarify their strengths and weaknesses, and assess their current reality as well as their approach to the future. Here are my essential observations:
Perhaps the most important success was the students' obvious engagement as they made connections between their past, present, and future. Despite a fast pace and limited advance preparation, students embraced topics that would be difficult for anyone at any age and enjoyed envisioning a snapshot of life fresh out of college and on their own.
Students actually chose to set holistic, long-term goals, both personal in nature and related to values such as family and friends. Their goals tended not to be singularly focused toward college and career, but were more life-focused.
Given their limited role, parents enthusiastically participated in the homework, which included the students sharing what they were experiencing through this process. Interestingly, many parents began to share their own rich stories about challenges they had faced along with their greatest questions about the future when they were at this age.
Some of the challenges stemmed from implementation decisions:
More time could have been devoted to introducing the seminar to teachers. During the rollout meeting, some teachers were notably skeptical about the idea that we can choose our future and that students would develop a "life plan." Some teachers were also concerned about the idea that we might be setting students up for disappointment later since so much is out of their control.
Not surprisingly, students generally preferred activities oriented toward the past and present more than with future-oriented activities. The activity in which students assessed their current and desired approach to the future led to angst when they recognized that their current approach was overly short-term-focused.
The activity students struggled with the most was being asked what they believed their life's purpose was, despite being assured that very few people consider, much less take the time to clarify, such a concept.
We are setting up our students to see that not only are they not in charge of their future, they are not responsible for it as well.
In discussing the outcomes of the seminar with school administrators, I was told that some of the biggest challenges with offering innovative programs such as this stem from the structure of education — e.g., the dictates of an inflexible Advanced Placement program, and the "college process mania."
"Creativity in secondary school education is a challenge," an administrator said. "The focus of secondary education is on academic preparation for college, getting students to the next level of independent education. The next decade of students' lives will look more closely at the important personal skills students need to develop in order to be successful."
It appears that schools are simply too entrenched in the traditional, present (short-term) academic activities.
As a parent, I've faced the challenges related to raising self-directed teenagers in an era marked by a high level of entitlement. The high school years are among the most difficult for parents. The expectation that parents become less involved in the kids' school lives at a time when the kids are eager for more independence sets up a tricky dynamic. The added stresses of kids now driving, the tight job market, and psycho-social concerns of teenagers are all contributing factors. Many parents have experienced the unfortunate outcome of all of this fear and worrying by becoming "helicopter parents" — or at least overly involved to some degree.
So where does this dynamic leave the student? The pressure placed on students to perform their best, to be "model students" during junior and senior year of high school, is enormous. The range of clubs, programs, and sports being offered is staggering.
They are choosing to fill their time with activities designed to present the perfect college applicant — with little consideration for purpose or personal fulfillment. Too many kids are being taught that the name of the game is to take as many AP courses and tests and boost their GPA in support of the most glowing college application possible. This less-than-subtle coercion is leading to stress and anxiety of epic proportions. The documentary film Race to Nowhere poignantly describes the stress-related illness and burnout stemming from the college selection process.
What Is At Risk
Through offering this seminar, I learned that too many students, even independent school students, seem to be marching along with a limited sense of the broader, longer-term context for why they're doing what they're doing or where they're headed beyond the next few years. Throughout this process, they hear adults say, essentially, "We know best what you need; we'll take care of you; just listen to us." This is dangerous in a knowledge economy in which change is the new normal. In this new world, in which everything is constantly changing, all we have is ourselves, our ability to adapt, to learn, and to grow. Do we believe that we are truly doing the best we can to instill this capability in our children by pushing them hard to compete for spots in top colleges without any serious consideration for who they are, for what interests them most, for what excites and engages them?
Some of the risks I see relate to continuing along the current path, postponing these important conversations with students until postsecondary school or later. The negative assumptions I've heard are having a negative toll on students. This assumption — that we cannot choose our future and that we are setting students up for disappointment later because so much is out of their control — is dangerous for both the students and society. We are setting up our students to see that not only are they not in charge of their future, they are not responsible for it as well. This is like suggesting that we encourage them to simply let life happen to them, not only in college but also beyond.
Conducting this seminar has generated a host of new and bigger questions, including:
How do we go about preparing students to begin to truly own their own futures, to the point where they are in charge of their own lives?
What questions do they need to ask, or be guided to ask, related to the decisions they need to make at this stage of their education?
A New Path
I see a two-pronged approach. First, I would propose that independent secondary schools consider introducing a strategic visioning course into the curriculum. Such a program could be designed as a springboard to experiential programs, internships, or co-op programs like Bancroft School's.
Second, I would propose that some interested secondary educators come together to begin to address these questions about how we prepare and educate our children to become more responsible for their own lives, to prepare for a changing and increasingly challenging world, and to meet the needs of the world in which they take part, including participating in a process of envisioning a desired future and begin a related planning process.
I'd like to see interested parents of secondary school children come together to begin exploring how they can participate in such a process both within their schools and within their own families, including how parents can best partner with their own children in this process of choosing and becoming responsible for one's own life.
What The Students Are Saying Here are just a few of the typical student responses to the life-planning process at Bancroft School: "It's been a constant stressor for me, how and where I'm going in the future, so writing it down and working it out, how I can accomplish these goals, is a relief to me." "I focused what I envisioned on what I saw for myself, not what anyone else saw for me. I saw that I dreamed big for myself and want to have a really happy life whether or not I find a significant other. If I'm surrounded by family and friends, I'll be fine and successful. I'm open-minded and have a strong idea of what I want my future to look like." "Don't get worked up about it because it's just a glimpse into the future and shouldn't change your mind. This was helpful and through time could become one of the best qualities of the school."
1. SMART criteria, widely used in business and education, are commonly attributed to management guru Peter Drucker and his management-by-objectives concept.
Kristie Haskell is a professional life coach and trustee at Bancroft School (Massachusetts). Those interested in becoming part of this conversation can contact her at Kristie@pivot-pointstrategyandsolutions.com.