It’s the ultimate debate among educators: are we training students to be lifelong learners, or are we preparing them for their future careers?
Why can’t it be both?
I work with high school students in Philadelphia, and, like many teachers, take on more than one role in my busy school. Specifically, I teach AP English as well as other high school English courses, and spend a few periods every week serving as the school’s guidance counselor. That puts me in the unique position of seeing the value of both liberal education and college/career prep.
Luckily, there are many ways to teach students that their job is to prepare for both lifelong learning and a career focus.
Although I don’t expect any of my students to truly decide on a career at age 18, it is my job as both an English teacher and as a counselor to expose them to the variety of careers available and to help them understand which careers are going to be in high demand in the future.
That means that we read Studs Terkel’s Working in my English classroom, and talk about how the various people Studs Terkel interviewed had their lives shaped by their careers. It means I assign writing exercises asking students to describe their ideal day in the workplace — without ever naming the specific job! (This is to help students start thinking about whether they prefer working alone or in groups, prefer indoors or outdoor work, prefer oral or written communication, etc.)
It also means that, as a guidance counselor, I make sure students know about all of their opportunities. Healthcare, for example, is officially the fastest-growing industry in the United States. It is my job to let students know that many of their opportunities may come in the healthcare field, whether they go to nursing school, follow a business path and become a healthcare administrator, or go into web design or copywriting and seek out jobs working for hospital websites.
Of course, I also stress the importance of becoming a lifelong learner. I remind my students about all the technology that didn’t exist when they were born, and ask them to write short pieces on how they learned to use Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other new technology. (These pieces are often amazing to read.) Then I ask them if they want to be like certain adults they know, who don’t understand how Facebook works or how to send an email attachment. They always say “no,” so we talk about the importance of continuing to learn new things, even after graduation.
I’ll close with the example of one specific student, whom I’ll call Mia. Mia was a bright and talented student who always knew how to draw others into a conversation. She loved our assigned literature and often finished the books in advance. Her “ideal day at work” essay included a lot of hands-on work with people, as well as a lot of active work — Mia was one of those students who learned best when she was up and moving. After several conversations about her skills and related career opportunities, Mia elected to go to nursing school in Pennsylvania.
Mia still keeps in touch, and I’m delighted to see her Facebook page and Goodreads list grow with all of the new books she’s reading, in addition to her nursing textbooks: Bleak House, The Emperor of all Maladies, The Fault in Our Stars. She has a web page where she displays her hike photography. She is both a talented nurse and a lifelong learner, and has found a way to combine an in-demand career with her love of the outdoors and of reading.
Our goal as educators should be to encourage more students to be like Mia: lifetime learners who also pursue careers. And yes, it is possible to teach both possibilities, even in a single classroom.
About the Author: James is an avid designer and coder since he was 12, James writes and curates topics on both basic web development and advanced languages with a particular focus on mobile. Read his thought on tech on Twitter