In previous posts, I’ve written about compliant employees and obedient children. This post continues the theme by discussing acquiescent students. Compliant employees, obedient children, and acquiescent students are all often considered “good”: good employees do as they’re told, good kids don’t talk back, and good students sit quietly in lectures and do well on tests.

In modern education science, however, acquiescence is now only considered “good” when the alternative is worse. Certainly there are classrooms where just getting through the lesson without outright rebellion and disruption is a win and where students passing tests and having even the most minimal chance at good employment is merely aspirational. It is difficult to object to struggling schools spending their resources on improving antiquated facilities, maintaining reasonable order in classrooms, and trying to help kids achieve reasonable levels of literacy and a basic education. On the other hand, how can I possibly accept such low aspirations for other people’s kids when I consider them so tragically inadequate for my own?

My kids are going to graduate into a workforce where they are competing with the smartest and best educated people in the world for good work. The nature of that work is unpredictable – they will most likely hold jobs that have not yet been invented – however we can already see the characteristics that will help them be competitive in this new work environment.

In the future, technology will enable anyone to work from anywhere, any time, which means that the workforce will be global rather than local for a majority of work  and competition will be fierce (see Friedman’s The World is Flat.) Instead of having a job for life (as our grandfathers did) or a series of jobs (as we have), our children will have a series of projects, working with different teams that form and dissolve, with different sponsors footing the bill (see Seth Godin’s The Forever Recession.) The “new normal” is going to be both competitive and motivating, stressful and satisfying – but only for those who have the skills to surf the wave. The rest will be relegated to commoditized jobs that can easily be shipped to parts of the world where wages are low – jobs that are performed by “good” employees who are obedient and acquiescent – who do as they are told very, very well.

What kinds of things do I hope my kids will know or be able to do when they graduate? Here are a few:

  • Collaborate effectively on multiple cross-functional, geographically distributed teams
  • Keep up with developments in their field through formal and informal sources, including publications, blogs, and information from their professional networks
  • Continually improve and reflect on their professional craft
  • Effectively find and synthesize large amounts of information of varying quality into a coherent understanding of complex topics and contribute to the knowledge/understanding of the community tackling them
  • Self-manage to produce quality outputs and products as needed by clients and/or teams
  • Maintain a professional reputation that allows them to obtain ongoing, meaningful work through their networks of professional contacts
  • Engage in active citizenship

These skills are in line with the current best educational practices. The field of education has been advocating for learning experiences that are student-centered and authentic, but our system of schooling creates constraints that make those very difficult to achieve under the best of circumstances. With technology revolutionizing the nature of work, however, it is no longer a luxury to prepare students to be active members of a participative workforce by teaching them to be active members of a participative learning community, but a necessity.

I hope my children are not “good” students in the sense that they acquiesce to merely memorizing and repeating back facts, figures, and processes that will garner good state test scores, but rather that they will question, research, challenge, and learn as a side effect of finding and pursuing good questions, individually and as part of a community. I hope they will be allowed to thrive in classrooms that are full of energy and inquiry and noise as part of explorations and the production of truly beautiful work. I hope they have the opportunity both within and outside of school to become self-directed life-long learners, because otherwise they will be marginalized by those students who do. And as I wish for this abundance and excellence for my own children, how can I reconcile students with fewer advantages being satisfied with merely being “good”?