10 School Lessons That Misrepresent What it Takes to Thrive in the Rest of Life

There are plenty of important lessons and skills that people learn in school, lessons that transfer to the rest of one’s present and future life. At the same time, some of the standard expectations in school do not always serve us well in other contexts: work, family, and community. So, how do we help young people develop these skills that sometimes clash with the lessons of many school cultures? Consider these ten contrasting lessons.

1. Most schools encourage getting a well-rounded education, having a good base of knowledge across all the subjects in school.

While there is value in such a perspective, that is not necessarily what helps many of us thrive in life beyond school. For that, many discover the importance of becoming a wonderfully person, with a lopsided set of skills and abilities. We instead learn the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who have a variety of knowledge and skills. It is the well-rounded group that often matters more than the well-rounded person.

2. Get rewarded for learning to follow the instructions carefully and wait for the teacher’s instructions before starting.

This certainly is an important skill, but it is equally important to learn how to work without any instructions, when the goals and unclear, or when it calls for you to abandon the instructions for another way.

Be a self-starter. Don’t just sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do. I find this to be one of the more valued skills when I look to hire people. I don’t have many spots for people who simply wait for me or another to tell them what to do. We need people who take initiative and, while respecting instructions at times, also taking action before anyone tells them to do so. This is a skill that is taught and learned in school sports more than the classroom. Can you imagine a basketball player who doesn’t move until the coach tells her what to do? That would not work out well, and the same it true for much of life beyond the classroom.

3. Don’t interrupt.

Yes, there is definitely something to this. It is rude to interrupt people. It is also important to learn when, if, and how to respectfully interrupt. Without learning this skill, people find themselves without a voice or unable to make important contributions in certain contexts. I”m not suggesting that everyone learn to ignore what others are saying and talk over everyone. Yet, there are situations in life where the conversation goes quickly, there is little time to hesitate, and the success of the project depends upon your finding a way to speak up and be heard.

4. Turn in your work on time or you get no credit.

Timeliness is important and not showing up for work on time might be enough to get fired in many jobs. And there are plenty of jobs where not getting something done on time will have grave and swift consequences. At the same time, it is just as important to learn how to set, change, and adapt due dates. Learn how to assess the time it will take you to accomplish a given project and discern when/if it is possible to negotiate the deadlines. Some deadlines are certain, but the method of doing this in many schools in contrived and often unrelated to the rest of one’s work. In life outside of schools, there is much more of a prioritization of deadlines. For example, it is common to have far more to get done than you have time to do. So, it becomes important to learn how to prioritize, how to change/negotiate new deadlines, and even how to let some things slide for the sake of others.

5. Do a little work on a lot of subjects.

Learning to juggle multiple projects at the same time is something that exists throughout life, but to be highly successful, it is also important to learn how to prioritize and spend countless hours focusing almost exclusively on one or a few things. Learn to go deep into a single problem or issue for days, weeks, months, even years. That is also a valuable life skill.

6. Judge your abilities by how well you function and learn to confirm to the existing school culture.

We need to learn to function and adapt to different contexts. However, we also want to learn how to assess if a given culture fits our own goals, abilities, passions, and way of doing things. Learn to adapt, but also learn to assess context to figure our where you can thrive…and go there. Or, learn how to shape and change a given culture, how to work around those things that slow you down, or to supplement with contexts that keep you fresh, sharp and able to leverage your greatest strengths.

7. Spend the day working and interacting with people who are within 3-4 years of your own age.

Some developmental psychologists will defend the importance of playing and interacting with others who are at a similar development stage. Yet, it is also important to learn to do work with a group of people of widely diverse ages. This will be the rest of life outside of school. At no other time in a person’s life will they be segregated by communities of people who are the same age, working only with those people.

8. Work in groups of people who are largely doing the same work at the same time.

Some people might work in jobs where everyone around them has largely the same task (teachers in a school, working the line at a factory, serving in a call center). Yet, many jobs and tasks in life involve working with a group of people, each of whom have different jobs. Some schools try to simulate this with cooperative and team-based projects, but that is still distinct from the more authentic experience of working with people with completely different  job descriptions.

9. Learn to do work that satisfies the expectations of the teacher.

While learning to meet the expectations of a boss can be important, it is even more important to learn how to do work that accomplishes the intended goal and that holds up in a real world situation. It isn’t just about doing math problems and taking math tests, earning a grade considered satisfactory or exemplary by a teacher. It is using math to meet a desired outcome.

10. Rely on someone else to not only tell you what to do, but how to do it.

Some jobs give clear step-by-step instructions, but plenty of tasks in life beyond schools also demand that we learn how to create steps ourselves. We might have an end goal, but we have to figure out the best way to get there.

These ten school lessons remain realistic expectations in different parts of our lives, but as I try to describe here, they only represent a fraction of the skills needed for the rest of life. This is why some schools over the last forty years have experimented with different ways of organizing school, trying to represent learning communities that help nurture this broader set of life skills.

Posted in blog, charter schools, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “10 School Lessons That Misrepresent What it Takes to Thrive in the Rest of Life”

  1. Kim Marxhausen

    Yes! You are describing self-regulation, resilience, and persistence. These are the skills that make you successful beyond school. Oh, and developmental psychologists have reason to promote multi-age learning as this is where peer tutoring is at its finest.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Kim. Yes, this (in terms of the student skills and competencies) relates to the traits promoted in positive psychology. From the other angle, I also write articles like this to contrast the skills needed by students with educational organizations, cultures and systems that may be unknowingly working against our efforts to cultivate such traits in learners.

Comments are closed.