Sunday, August 18, 2013

All Students Need A Major - Long Before You Get To College

     For those of us who have been to college in our lives, do we not remember when we were able to “declare a major” as one of the most important and exciting times of our educational lives.  I remember being an 18-year-old freshman that got to take one intro course in my major along with my required General Education classes.  It was exciting and exhilarating.  It was a class that seemed real, had immediate connections to the real world and what I wanted to do.  There were older students in there as well who had just declared their major. 

    And although I eventually changed that major (as is often the case), I remember that being such an exciting journey.  I remember feeling that I had arrived at my life finally.  Some of us got that feeling when we discovered that cool elective in high school or maybe had that first part-time job.  But when we had a major in college, we were finally somebody.  We were starting a career and that gave us identity, purpose and a mission.

     The problem with that typical experience was that many of us had to wait until college to have that feeling or form that identity.  And I think that is too late. 

      It has long been understood by both educators and learners, that learning, or teaching, is more effective when the student is studying or pursuing something they are interested in themselves.  We use words like ownership, relevancy, engagement and more.  But it’s really simple.  If we like it, we learn more and enjoy doing it.  And when we enjoy doing it, we learn more. 

      But for far too long in schools, we have operated under the assumption or pedagogy that learning was something we have to just get through.  We have always taken the basics or core subjects.  And for the most part, they were presented and taught as something that we just have to do or even suffer through.  There has not been much regard for personal interest or that eventual higher level of learning.  Indeed, regardless of the reform, we are still stuck in this pedagogical quandary to some degree.

     But with technology and a better understanding of learning now, as well as a dire need to get more students to be successful, we have the opportunity to address student interests throughout our education.  Can we not learn the reading and writing skills we need by working with almost every type of genre or format available?  Can we not learn science through specific interest areas related to the environment, animals, ecology and more?  Can we not discover the passion for history by understanding our own personal history and investigating our own cultural interests?  We can take this all the way throughout all subjects.  With the availability of unlimited resources on-line, as well as the tools for all students to produce professional work, it seems like we should be able to have all or students “declare their major.”  And yes, their interests – or major if you will - will undoubtedly change over time and experiences.  But meanwhile, they will be operating, thinking, learning and competing at a much higher level.


     We now have elementary students not only reading books, but publishing them.  We have middle school students not just studying about entrepreneurism, but also actually creating their own e-commerce sites and businesses.  When I was in high school, we sometimes watched movies (some pretty bad ones too).  And now, high schoolers are making films, sharing films, showcasing their films and even selling their films.

      We do need many general skills to be successful, especially in the 21st century.  Indeed, the 21st century workplace skills of Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication are essential.  We need to be proficient at these, but we can use specialized or individualized interests in order to master them. 

   Additionally, the 21st century workplace is going to need students that understand “branding.”  We will all have a digital footprint – either good or bad.  If we don’t have one at all, we won’t be known either.  Owning an identity as someone who is known for something, has mastered things, has specialized and enjoyed success at a high level will be what connects us to jobs and keeps us employed. 

    So, to me, it seems that if we are concerned about the future of our economy and citizens, we need to address many things including everyone getting to “declare their major” as early as possible in their educational journey.  There is a Buddhist proverb that states, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Well, our students are ready and the world is full of great teachers.  But students will not be ready, unless they can pursue their interests, enjoy their learning and carve out that professional identity.

(images courtesy of Foter)

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