Whenever I think about the 4th of July, I wonder, in addition to what time the grill will be ready, what it must have been like back in 1776 during the time of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, a group of like-minded men who were venturing into an independence untested and unprecedented. They didn’t know the future as a certainty. They didn’t know how their Declaration would play out. They didn’t know their own role in how they were changing the world. They only knew they had a problem that needed solving.
From some of the greatest thinkers in American history is a lesson. A lesson from which we can all learn a little something about how to help our kids be their best selves.
The 4th of July brings families together and inevitably brings questions from long-lost Aunt Martha and Uncle Ron targeted at our kids intended to make small talk. I remember these questions from my childhood like they were yesterday. One stands out among the rest: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I even find myself asking this same question of kids when I try to make small talk; it just rolls off my tongue.
This past weekend I spent some time wondering about this question. What is it really asking? What do the adults really want to know? What does it suggest? I came away thinking that the question implies that our kids are destined to work for others. That they will become a cog in a larger machine: doctors who work for hospitals, engineers who work for cities, teachers who work for school districts, managers who work for Fortune 500 companies. Do these “jobs” create fulfillment? Do these “jobs” keep us happy? Or are they jobs that simply require us to take a laundry list of classes to satisfy some requirement established by an unknown entity, so we can work until it’s time to retire?
I got to thinking that the question should be much different. The question should be, “What problem do you want to solve when you grow up?” A question like this gets kids thinking about passion and intent. This questions lends itself to helping our kids discover their educational purpose. Their learning becomes less about completing the laundry list and more about gaining the skills they are going to need to solve their identified problem: doctors who want to cure cancer, engineers who want to build reservoirs for clean water in third world countries, teachers who want to eradicate illiteracy, businessmen who want to build systems to make commerce more readily accessible to everyone.
This is the work that isn’t just a job, work that creates fulfillment and potentially changes the world.
My argument is simply that with a mindset focused on solving problems, we will have kids more engaged in their schooling, more aware of the world around them, more focused on building skills, more interested in gaining interconnected, cross-curricular experience than just memorizing isolated bits of knowledge.
When I talk to people about the future of education, this is the conversation I’m going to start having. This is conversation that will get our schools to start thinking outside of the 200-year-old box of classes in isolation and content for the sake of content, rather than for the sake of intent.
When I think back to Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, I am again struck by the problems they solved. Could they have dreamed up our Declaration of Independence simply by wanting be a writer or a politician “when they grew up”? I don’t think so.
When you sit down for your next barbeque, I hope I’ve given you one more nugget to chew on.
Happy 4th of July to you all.