The debate over the value of college is heating up. The value of degrees from non-top-tier colleges is negligible. The future job market does not require a four-year college degree. And now Time magazine is advocating vocational school for most kids.
I have thought for a while that homeschool should be like vocational school. For example, when my son goes to horseback riding lessons, he doesn’t just ride. He learns to do the work of the people who run the horse barn. Sometimes I worry that my mind has been clouded from fifteen years of giving career advice and now I’m too vocationally focused. But now I’m thinking that vocational school is the education that kids need to be successful adults. Here are three reasons why:
1. Kids learn liberal arts topics better in the context of a vocation.
The best part from that article in Time magazine about vocational school is that among high school kids taking standardized tests in math, the vocational school kids scored higher. In vocational school you don’t have math class but rather you learn math in the context of a vocation. The kids scored higher because they were more engaged in what they were learning.
This makes sense to me because I was in special ed math in high school, but as an founder of three startups I have been able to learn all the math I needed for running business models and making financial projections. In fact, I have come to love using Excel in my personal life because it was so useful to me in my work life.
2. Financially stable kids learn better than kids stressed about finances.
The idea that a starving artist can make art is pretty much false. Because the starving artist makes art about their crazy life as a starving artist. Think Basquiat, painting about squalor and drugs, or Raymond Carver writing over and over again about a man who has no money.
The point here is that it’s difficult to concentrate on anything besides money when you don’t have enough money for the basics. Kids understand that they will end up taking out loans for college tuition and then they’ll enter a workforce and earn a salary that doesn’t cover their loan payments. Kids start thinking about this conundrum in high school. They hear their parents worry about college tuition and they hear their friends talking about the loans.
Conversely, if parents could help kids develop a vocational school plan early on, then kids would know they are able to enter the workforce without going to an expensive, liberal arts college. If kids understand early on that they are developing skills to get themselves through the financial transition to adulthood then the kids will have more confidence learning and growing during those teen years leading up to the transition.
But the only way to give kids confidence that they can work and earn money is to show them things they can do. Different jobs. The more jobs a kid tries out before they need to earn money the more likely they will know how to earn money when they need money.
3. Kids learn better with real-world feedback.
Most people do a better job with their work if someone is directly benefitting from the work. For example, if you do a word problem about how many milligrams a polio shot should be you care a lot less than if you a going to actually give the polio shot to the kid sitting in front of you.
Stanford conducted a study about how this idea applies to writing: Students did much better writing when they were writing for the Internet, where there’s a large audience, than when they were writing for one, single classroom teacher. Kids do their best work when they feel they are part of the world and they have context for what they are doing.
We also know this is true from workplace studies: If you tell someone how the work they are doing fits into the company’s big-piture plans, then the employee will do better work. Context matters, and when kids learn specialized subjects in the context of “you need this for the test” or “you need this to get into college,” the kids will not do their best work.
4. Vocational school is more intuitive than curriculum.
Parents spend so much time on the useless topic of which workbooks to use. The reason the discussion is so time consuming is because no workbook is appropriate—they are all bad so the parent always feels like they are missing something. What they are missing, of course, is context. Science 2.0 reports that students do not learn well outside of the context of doing. And research from the University of Kansas shows that in a curriculum of telling instead of doing, kids retain very little of the information they were told.
If you teach a kid by doing, the kid will learn fast and the lessons will feel right because they are the steps the kid needs to take to get where she is going. Ask the kids what they want to do, or leave them alone until they figure out what they want to do and the kid will find their vocation.
Learning by doing is a vocational education, and kids would do it intuitively if we didn’t redirect them to useless, unengaged learning.