One of the common critiques of “traditional education” is that it doesn’t “work” for everyone, that only a sliver of students are able to do well and succeed in the traditional model. The argument for change is to make education more inclusive of different learning styles. But that means the existing model DOES work for the group of kids who mesh well with that style, right?
I was one of those kids. I was the kind of student who loved school and thrived in the traditional structure. For the most part I enjoyed the lectures, note-taking, and even the standardized tests (yes, I’m one of those people). Sure, I loved labs and projects, but I didn’t NEED innovative strategies because I was already motivated and doing well.
I followed the prescribed path to success. Get straight A’s. Do well on standardized tests. Go to a highly ranked college. Major in something hard. Make the Dean’s List. Join clubs. Take on leadership roles. Find internships. Graduate on time. Get a good job. Check, check, check. The tried and true recipe for success.
Answer-Getters, not Problem-Solvers
After graduating college with a degree in aerospace engineering, I landed a job at GE Aviation in their Engineering Development Program (into which virtually all bachelor’s-level engineers are hired). As a part of the program, all new hires took an in-house course taught by senior engineers at the company.
On the first day of the “Advanced Course”, the lead instructor introduced the purpose of the class. To a room of perhaps 100 bright-eyed recent engineering graduates, he said*: “You represent the best and brightest from many of the best engineering schools in the country. But, none of you know how to be engineers. Your education has taught you to be answer-getters, not problem-solvers, and engineering is about solving problems. Now, it’s our job to unteach you the answer-getting and reteach you the right way.”
Few things have resonated with me the way statement did, because it rang too true. It turned my view of my own education on its head. What was the point of my degree if my employer needed to unteach me what I had learned in school and instead teach me something new?
I could probably count on my fingers the number of times throughout my education in which I was asked to grapple with a real, complex problem that didn’t have a predetermined “correct” answer. Even more vexing, many of those instances were in humanities classes, completely unrelated to the types of engineering problems I would face at GE. Suddenly, so much of my education felt trivial. As it turns out, being really good at row-reducing matrices by hand and knowing how to get a great score on the ACT aren’t particularly useful skills when it comes to designing more efficient jet engines.
What Could Have Been
Traditional education “worked for me” insofar as I found it easy to meet the expectations laid out for me by my educational institutions. It did not, however, “work for me” in the way that it should have: by truly preparing me for life beyond school and equipping me to pursue creative solutions to challenging and urgent problems. Now, I’m not saying my education failed me. I learned important things and developed valuable skills, and I still certainly view my career trajectory as successful and rewarding. But I look back with a twinge of disappointment as I think of what it COULD have been. What if I had been given more opportunities to explore the real applications of engineering and tackle authentic challenges?
Maybe my engineering education would have felt less grueling if more than just my freshman intro lab and senior design course had involved an open-ended project. Maybe I would remember more from “Mechanisms and Machines” had we done something, anything, hands-on. Or maybe I would remember more even if just some of the examples and problems sets occasionally looked like this:
instead of this:
Maybe companies like GE would not need to dedicate millions of dollars and man hours to training their employees how to solve actual problems. Maybe we wouldn’t be facing a career-readiness crisis, where only 56% of recently surveyed employers think college graduates are well-prepared to think critically (among other concerning results).
Need for a New Model
When I made an early career change from engineering to education, the revelations from my first days at GE formed the foundation of my teaching philosophy. If nothing else, I want to train my students to be problem-solvers, not answer-getters. But this has proven to be a formidable challenge, and the existing system is not up to the task, not even for the students who perform well.
We can’t expect kids to learn to problem solve in a straightforward manner because problem solving is not a straightforward process. It is a skill developed through practice, failure, reflection, and iteration. It requires time, flexibility and an openness to failure, all things that are sorely limited on the conveyor belt that is K-16 education.
Finding ways to nurture problem-solving in students has simultaneously been the most exciting and most difficult thing I’ve ever done, requiring me to exercise my own creative problem solving muscles. I don’t know if it would be any easier had I experienced a less traditional education myself, but I suspect I would at least feel more comfortable with the process.
If I’m being honest, I still find myself resisting the urge to ask if I’m “doing it right,” even as I work to train my students out of the same habit. 18 years of success in school instilled me with a deep-seated aversion to failure, so I’ve had to work hard to overcome this fear and embrace my own stumbles. I find myself needing to continue to develop the same mindsets and skills I’m trying to foster in my students. With any luck, it will be a little easier for them.
*Disclaimer: I did not write this quote down at the time, this is paraphrased from my memory and not verbatim, except for the “answer-getters” and “problem-solvers” – that stuck.
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