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?  

  • ScottEDiamond

    I agree!!

    You said, “He wants to explore his current interests, be happy and healthy, and engage in various communities.”

    We have to trust that our teaching, when aligned with current interests (exploration) and community engagement, IS the way to best prepare studnets for an unpredictable future.

  • ReneeMoore

    The Now Value of Learning


    I agree completely with your observations, and want to add one that comes from the work my husband and I have done through our youth ministry for almost 30 years here in the Mississippi Delta. In most of the families with whom we work, what the children learn can be of immediate help to their families. Many of our young people do the reading and writing for the adults in the house since adult illiteracy here runs 40-60%. If the first of the month falls on a school day, you can look for many of the older children especially to be out of school—not to go wild shopping like the stereotypical welfare myth too many people believe–but to help their parent(s)/guardian(s) fill out forms, answer questions, pay correct amounts, work the machines at the counter or the ATMs. I have kids who know how to fill out all the forms at the WalMart money center becuase that’s where they cash checks and pay bills.

    We’ve used this reality in the after school work of our nonprofit to help us with our objective of improving the health and education of Delta youth by encouraging kids to learn about the health issues that most affect them and their families; then create ways to share what they’ve learned with peers and relatives. As one kid put it, “This is better than the science fair!”

    • PaulBarnwell



      I applaud your efforts!  And great example of helping the students see–and enact–the relevance of their educations. Have you connected with my colleages Brent Peters (BLTN) and Joe Franzen regarding the Food Literacy courses/projects they have rolling?  Sounds like you could have a natural partnership and swap ideas about how students can bring their new insights about health/literacy/food directly to communities.  Have a great day!

      • ReneeMoore

        Hook Me Up

        Didn’t know about the Food Literacy projects. Can you send me some emails or send them mine?

  • JulieHiltz

    Student engagement

    You’ve hit on something we’ve been discussing as a staff for our school improvement plan for next year- student engagement. The majority of our school is middle class, average students but we still struggle with keeping their attention. How do we do a better job of attracting and holding our student’s attention to our lessons? We can’t get past or away from some of the negatives of our job (by that I mean “the test”) but how can we present lessons in a way that our students WANT to learn? 

  • ScottEDiamond

    Our quest, also

    Gosh, we are very much trying to solve the very same problem!

  • DaveOrphal

    Waiting for Pre-Natal Algebra

    I like your idea of learning for learning’s sake.  It makes me think about two stories.

    My Dad loves talking about the clubs he and his friends would form when they are upper-elementary/middle-school age.  They would form a geology club, check out all the books they could at the library, get all nerdy, and eventually lose interest… until someone had the idea of forming an astronomy club.  Then, the process would repeat.

    In my own childhood, I remember the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons leading me to “study” Bullfinches Mythology and Arthurian legends.  Along with my friends, we “got nerdy” about medieval armor, castles, knights, weapons, you name it! 

    Both of those stories had in common several elements you talk about.  We were in the now.  We wanted to know what we wanted to know (be it medieval crossbows of the atmosphere of Venus) right NOW.  Because of that, we were all self-directed.  We, my friends and I as well as my father’s and his friends) went to our local libraries and got the information we were hungry for.  This learning was also, in part, just for learning’s sake; no one was requiring us or testing us on our value-added.

    From time to time, I see my students do this as well.  Typically, they go to their phones and Google rather than the library, but the themes of self-directed, learning for learning, and learning in the moment, are all the same.

    Wouldn’t it be grand is even just 20% of our students time in our classrooms could be set aside for discovery.  I’m not greedy!  I would just like one day each week.  Alas, I don’t see that mindset breaking through the wall of testing and accountability any time soon.

    • PaulBarnwell

      20%….Love it!


      I love the idea of a 20% self-directed learning model, and am envisioning ways to incorporate it into junior English…which will be a challenge due to the required ACT and writing tests. However, it’s empty language if we proclaim the desire for students to be college and career ready without giving them a variety of challening, authentic learning experiences!

      Also, great anecdotes.  One wonders, with the ubiquity of technology, how often kids have the same sort of physical, hands-on explorations of their interests. Obviously the world’s information is at their fingertips, but DOING counts for something, right?

      Thanks for the comment!

    • ScottEDiamond

      Just like Google!

      I love this idea – it’s like Google – they give employees independent time.

  • DeidraGammill

    Spiderman, Google Thursdays, and JOY
    What do the Amazing Spiderman and Google Thursdays have in common? Freedom and joy. Two things that are often (unwittingly) sacrificed in public education.

    Confused? Let me explain.

    My boys took me to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 Saturday night as part of my Mother’s Day gift. I’m in the darkened theater, watching the opening scene, marveling at the CG effects. Spiderman is swinging, flipping, almost flying. And he’s hooting and hollering. He is having FUN. He hasn’t even gotten to the bad guys (his “purpose” for being a hero), yet he is literally oozing JOY from every pore.

    It struck me that Spiderman was experiencing this joy because he was doing what he loves AND doing what he was made to do. Every swing, flip and jump was an expression of WHO he was. When did our culture forget that JOY should be a integral part of education, of careers, of life, not just something for the movies?

    I needed to hear from peers I respect that what I’ve been doing since the Teaching & Learning 2014 conference is VALID! At the conference, I heard Dr. Tony Wagner talk about Google Fridays – the one day a week that Google gives its employees time to learn/explore/discover whatever they want to; they are better employees because they have time for self-directed learning (the hallmark of true adult education).

    I came back from the conference and started “Google Thursdays” in my two reading classes (the one place I feel like I have some freedom in my teaching – English classes are set in stone). The kids absolutely went nuts. They kept expecting the boom to drop. Here was a teacher telling them to learn about whatever they were interested in learning! They live for Thursdays. Heck, I even get excited watching them light up – “Hey, Mrs. G, did you know … come look at this … have you ever …?” Keep in mind these are 14 and 15 year old kids, mostly boys. Getting excited about learning something? When did that become cool? On Thursday.

    I’ll admit – letting go, relinquishing control – is scary. What if they don’t learn something meaningful? How do I measure their growth? Can I justify this to an administrator? I shared the concept with a colleague and she got excited too. Within the week, she had shaped the concept into a research paper/MLA exercise – students choose their topic AND she meets a curriculum standard. Win-win scenario, right?

    Bleh. I understand what she was trying to do. And I’m not criticizing her. But turning Google Thursday into a research paper project defeats the purpose. Once an assessment is attached, stress/fear/worry attach themselves too. An assessment means there is a RIGHT way the teacher wants it done. The focus is then on making the teacher happy (translation – a good grade) and no longer on the discovery.

    I smiled and nodded at my colleague, accepted her handouts, went back to my room and agonized over my decision to let my students keep on learning just for the fun of it.

    Don’t misunderstand. My students will make a presentation, in any format they want, to share with the class in lieu of an exam. But the presentation is all about sharing their new knowledge, all the cool stuff they discovered; it is not about a rubric or a grade. They have become the experts; we become their pupils. Learning just because it’s interesting. Novel concept, eh? Kind of like reading a book just for pleasure, not to write a book report or take a test.

    So, thank you for this posting and all the great comments. Giving our kids freedom is risky. We’re accountable (as we should be). What if kids waste time? What if they don’t use the resources responsibly Gasp! What if they are watching YouTube videos of skateboarders and “pretending” to learn? Very real concerns, because some kids will do exactly that. But most of them won’t. And I am tired of limiting the majority in an attempt to control a few (those few who usually find a way to avoid assignments anyway).

    [Guess what? I learned some pretty cool stuff watching those YouTube videos over Hunter and Drew’s shoulders. Could it be that they learned something too?]

    • Dharmesh Mehta

      Someone got it right!

      Believing in the 80% (or so) of the students to follow the program you designed, and not worrying about the other 20% – that is what you got right. The book Freedom, Inc. (http://www.amazon.in/Freedom-Inc-Employees-Business-Productivity/dp/0307409384) explains the same funda, although not in an educational aspect. It seems you are pretty serious about this approach of yours (kudos!) and I believe that you can gather constructive support from these pages.

      I work in a startup in India (Yellow Cursor), which aims at Engineering Education folks (students, teachers, admins). I would love to discuss this idea of yours and gain insight and results, if you don’t mind sharing. Do drop me a line at [dmehta at yellowcursor dot com].

    • PaulBarnwell

      “I’ll admit – letting go,

      “I’ll admit – letting go, relinquishing control – is scary. What if they don’t learn something meaningful? How do I measure their growth?”

      Deidra, THANK YOU for your amazing comment and insight–could be a published blog by itself!

      Control (over students, discipline curriculum, time) vs. Trust (of students, processes, innovations) leads to so much tension in our school and classroom cultures.  

      I’m with you, it can be a little unnerving to let go of some control, but the vast majority of students respond well with some structured freedom and a teacher showing they treat and trust them as young adults to be self-guided (to an extent). 

      How the heck does one become a healthy, successful adult (by multiple measures) when having to learn and operate in a tightly-controlled environment?

    • Gail

      You can learn unexpected things from stuff that doesn’t look edu

      From a different perspective, so what if students watch a skateboard video during that time?  Maybe they are trying to learn a great new trick because they are avid skateboarders.  Maybe they are seeing how to tape their friends tricks and seeing what does not work or what makes a bad video.  Maybe it will lead to reading about a particular skater and then realizing that math (although they won’t call it that) plays a role in how to do certain tricks…angles, speed, etc.  It may not be readily noticable, but it does not necessarily make it unvaluable.  And chances are they will not do that EVERY Thursday unless they are passionate about skateboarding or something related.  I have unschooled my 8yo for the last year, and it has opened up my eyes the kind of learning that can take place in the most unexpected places.  We as adults just have to be able to trust that natural curiosity and desire to learn that we were all born with and can find again if the schools have killed it…simply by doing things like Google Thursday with no strings attached.

    • ScottEDiamond

      Love it!

      Google has it down to a science.

  • KipHottman

    I love the quote

    I love the quote from the Renee Moore’s student, “This is better than the the science fair”.  Hands on, real world, where does it go?  Paul, you state that there are millions of students who might become engaged if we start designing instruction that ignites interest.  This is so true and it reminds me of a conversation that I recently had with my students.  

    Last year some students told me that throughout their high school career they only occasionally used their learning in engaging scenarios and truly created.  They told me that they missed elementary school where they did so many hands on activities like visiting ponds to collect tadpoles to analyze.  The main motivators that kept them going in high school were college credit from their A.P. classes and the chance of an academic/sports scholarship.

    College and Career Ready is a very important and noble goal but where is the passion that education should be bringing to these teenagers?  Why are 80 percent of students engaged in elementary school and only 40 percent in high school?  If the main motivators behind graduating are receiving college credit and a good GPA then maybe we should try to redirect this thinking.  Career and Colleger Ready is a positive end goal but it sounds like we need to focus on the culture of high school and make the culture more engaging.

    So I wonder…

    What do we need to change in order to implement best practice and create 80 percent engagement in high school just like elementary school?  How do we create a culture where students ask, “How can I use this material that I am learning to benefit me in the future?” instead of….”How can I get an “A” on the final exam?  


    • PaulBarnwell

      How does (can) this benefit me (us) right now?


      Similar to your experience talking with students, I’ve talked with kids about the lack of field trips and other activities that “stick” with them during their high school years. I contend our HS culture is too focused on academics, ignoring the needs of the whole child. Somehow, once students become 14-15 years old, fun becomes a dirty word. Projects (meaningful ones) become even more rare. Heck, even physical activity is marginalized for those students who aren’t on athletic teams.

      How about students asking, “How does this benefit me NOW?” or “How can I use my knowledge to improve my school community and beyond?”

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

      • ScottEDiamond

        Love this!

        Love your comment, “How about students asking, “How does this benefit me NOW?” or “How can I use my knowledge to improve my school community and beyond?”

  • Kathleen Marshall

    Recently retired elem teacher/ relevancy now vs the future

    I have just retired after teaching elementary school for 47 years.  No, I don’t feel old but I do miss “my kids”.  I often don’t read all the comments in a blog because at times they are simply confrontational or boring.  What a delight to actually keep going to read all the replies on this first visit to your blog.  I so totally agree with all of you that I can envision us all together doing a conga line through the “halls of learning” in response to the dramatic changes in the enforced style of /teaching/ supposedly learning gaining strength throughout the country.

    My former school in Washington State was a mid to lower income school where we knew how to teach and engage both students and parents but the new administrator did not.Teacher’s grade levels were changed, classrooms were moved, our planning time became almost mandatory team planning [ we did love our teams and did plan and evaluate student growth to share ideas and ask for insight from others but that was by choice.] Our school won multiple state awards,the National Blue Ribbon, and  financial support from a National company to meet our plan to adjust our academic delivery model to meet the needs of our students.

    Last year I taught all day K which I had not done for 30 years.  I loved my kids and the academic progress they were making doing things “my way” which meant physical as well as mental engagement.  My approach to engaging my classes- K all the way to 2nd/3rd graders was to create an “Expert Report”.  The topic was their choice as long as it was something they were curious about but knew nothing or very little about.  They came up with two topic ideas and together we jointly selected the one each child wanted to do.  Step two was to think of 5 good questions that could not be answered by a yes or no.  They had a choice of how to teach the class about their topic.  It could be via technology, a poster, a demonstration, or another idea they may have.  Each project had to teach the rest of us about their 5 questions/answers.  Parents were welcome to come and we did 1 to 5 per day.  The children did not recieve a grade as such but their efforts were celebrated on their end of the year evaluations.  Their peers did evaluate them on items such as” I could hear your voice”

    ” you made good eye contact”; You were able to answer questions we asked you or told us you would try and find that answer for them”; and each child had to write down something they learned from their classmate’s presentation.  Each child went home with a smile on their faces and with a classroom set of these completed cards to share with their family. We found ways to display their work for other children to see in our hallways and shared photos with their parents.  Let me also add that out of 20 kdg. children I had 5 different langauges spoken at home, 2 children with autism, and 2 children who had difficulty staying engaged for one reason or another.

    When I started doing similar learning work several years ago I had a multiage class of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.  I still hear from some of them now and then and it is so marvelous to hear their memories of that time and what they are doing as adults.

    How sad to have a new principal whose comments were made like this: ” I want to hear exactly the same words come out of your mouth as your team when you are teaching reading”; We don’t have time to let your class do art – everything must be academic”; ” you need to have rotating activities every 15 or 20 minutes during your reading block so you can meet with each child at their reading level. ” That was to a teacher with 5 rdg groups out of 19 children!.  I think this should be called the new machine age for all the timers, bells, whistles, stop learning and pass your computers to another class interferences to real learning.

    I can see middle and high school students approaching a history project through the music of a time period, technology of the time, the impact of school and home to work in the fields, care for siblings while parents work long hours in sweat shops etc.

    I stopped ny 3 hr. a day commute to volunteer now as a teacher docent for a small historical museum on Bainbridge Island and our work with children and teens from around the world learning about the Japanese Exclusion act, the history of our community, how communities larned to not just survive but embrace cultural diversity etc.  www.bainbridgeislandhistorymuseum

    • PaulBarnwell

      Kudos to you!


      I tip my hat to you for staying in the game so long! When teaching is going well, it doesn’t always feel like a job:).  It’s great you integrated self-directed learning for your young students….I’m sure they loved it.

      The challenge is for middle and high-school teachers to embrace the unknown, the challenges, and the positive risks of this type of approach, despite the incessant pressure to “cover” material for tests.  


      • ScottEDiamond

        Harness the pressure

        And I believe that if we “embraced the unknown, the challenges, and the positive risks of this type of approach” we would see BETTER performance on the tests!

        • KipHottman

          So much passion

          So much passion amongst this thread, I love it!  I am reading that teachers know their students and want to embrace the unknown, but are somewhat pushed down a different path by the “testing bully”.  How can we change the behavior of testing while maintaining the trust that we will hold ourselves accountable?  Where and with whom can this conversation take place allowing teachers more control over their profession?

  • KrisGiere

    Look Quickly!

    This article made me think of the overused phrase “don’t let your future pass you by.”  This phrase though intended to be motivational seems to inspire a level of systematic anxiety.  Test early (or earlier and earlier), Test often (more often too often), the future is now!  As I reflect on many of the aspects of our education system, I continually come back to the harried or frenzied pace at which our society wants us to educate.  If we build in down time for quiet reflection and contemplation into our courses, outsiders (even insiders) often see gaps that need to be filled with content.  If we focus on the here and now to keep students mindful of the present, deadlines get stacked up to the height of soapboxes or used a pulpits to refocus on a future that we have yet to define.

    If we focus on career readiness, we must remember that many of the jobs that will be in demand in ten years from now haven’t even been created yet.  How do we prepare students for the unknown?  Through test scores?  Doubtful.

    Intended or not, I hear a voice in your writing advocating for growth in our students as people, not manufacturing students to be <enter buzzword here>.  I don’t know how, but I hope nonetheless that our obession with arbitrary tests will end and a new societal (I know teachers already understand this need) focus on nuturing positive, benevolent growth in each individual will rise to the forefront of our educational priorities.

    Living only for the future will typically result in missing out on the present or worse regretting the past.

  • Mary Wade


    This is one of the most inspiring articles–and comments discussion–I have ever seen.  It's a conversation that should be spread as far and wide as possible.  Thank you all for sharing your personal experiences, honest reflections, and passion for bringing what matters most to our classrooms.  I was inspired to write my own post on present learning here, and I hope it adds to the discussion.  Thanks again!