Why We Need to Stop Preparing Students for the Future

I hear the phrase “I hate school” far too often. It pains me. It makes me wonder if, in our endless quest to raise academic achievement and prepare students for the future, we are inadvertently extinguishing real hope for sustained student success.

The value of learning right now is endangered for too many students, leading to many unintended consequences.

What is lost when we skew too far toward a teaching and learning climate in which nothing feels relevant or meaningful right now? Or, in the words of fellow Collaboratory member Lauren Hill, when too many of our assignments, tests, essays, and exhortations are all geared towards a real, or even imaginary future?

Student engagement, for one.  According to a 2013 Gallup poll in which 500,000 students nationwide shared their responses, the number of students who claim to be engaged in school drops from 80% to 40% from elementary school to high school. Even if our intentions are good, status-quo methods aren’t working. High-stakes testing, a lack of experiential and project-based learning, and few vocational options for students who aren’t “book-smart” are several of the reasons for this disconcerting trend.

How about learning for learning’s sake? It’s hard to imagine a more potent suffocator of intrinsic motivation than constantly being told, more or less, that what you’re doing doesn’t matter right now, but it will in the future. We work and mentor countless students who are unsure about what’s next, and this shouldn’t be a dilemma–uncertainty about the future will blossom into endless opportunity for those students who are engaged moment to moment with curiosity, passion, and creativity. But how many kids are given the chance to nurture these traits at school, especially once they reach high school?

And what about happiness and health? Check out 13-year old Logan Laplante describing why traditional school is missing the boat when it comes to student well-being. Logan doesn’t want to be steered towards a certain career. He doesn’t want to fret over one, two, or five years from now. He wants to explore his current interests, be happy and healthy, and engage in various communities.

Promoting student well-being–think Maslow’s hierarchy–is an overlooked and underrated mission if we desire for students to be prepared to face new challenges once they walk across the graduation stage.

Yes, I understand the value in preparing students for college by meeting certain benchmarks on ACT scores. Doors may open for students who might never have considered higher education if they achieve a score worthy of admission. I also understand the value–albeit small–of making students aware of what might be expected as they continue on their educational journeys. And every task, assignment, essay doesn’t have to be exciting and relevant work.

Yet having a constant eye towards the future devalues–some might even say dehumanizes–current student needs and daily work in our classrooms, labs, and libraries. There are millions of students who might become engaged if we start designing instruction that ignites interest, teaching students the joy inherent in learning.  And once our hallways become filled with more students whose well-being becomes more of a priority, I probably won’t be hearing “I hate school” nearly as often.

Educators, parents, and other stakeholders: Do you agree? Is a constant look towards the future detrimental to the education system? How do you balance addressing real student needs in the now vs. pressures to prepare them for later on down the road?