More than a hundred years ago, the United States made high school education compulsory. A formal education system was designed to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution. This was almost unprecedented, and it was a massive leap forward – driving a lot of economic change in the last 100 years. Fast forward to today in our rapidly changing world, and it’s clear that the traditionally established education system is under stress to deliver a model that is consistent with the demands of society today.
Obviously, the world is radically different today than it was 100 years ago; however, the traditional approach to education has been slow to catch up. Not only have the needed skillsets changed, we find ourselves in a globalized world. It’s no longer about Iowa competing with Minnesota; it’s about the United States competing with other countries across the world. The question then becomes, are we educating our rising generation – and even ourselves – to adequately compete or contribute?
As a college professor, I find it fascinating to observe the skills and knowledge that students come prepared with from high school and those skills that are severely lacking. More times than not, it is the more important skills – the ability to problem-solve, exercise empathy and humility, and communicate – that are inadequate.
But That’s Just How It’s Always Been Done
How many times have you heard that phrase – “that’s how it’s always been done”? As if an approach used before will always be the right approach needed for present and future needs. That reasoning is rarely a good one. Consider our traditional educational approach to foreign language.
You likely sat for nearly an hour a day, every day, for a few years because your high school required at least two years for graduation. Also, if you were college-bound, they required at least two, if not three years to apply. You had to take it, simply to check a box.
For most, if not all of you in this room, you lived through the boredom and frustration that often felt like a colossal waste of your time. You had other, more important competing interests, and this class…it was hardly your priority. And to make matters worse, you were surrounded by classmates who had zero interest in learning it. The class just slogged along endlessly. That certainly didn’t help YOUR motivation to learn it. Your only goal then was to get an A for the sake of your transcript. Whether you learned the language or not – it didn’t matter.
The sad truth of all this is, when asked how many use their foreign language “training,” the answer is only one out of 100 Americans can claim fluency taught from an American high school or college. That means foreign language instruction yields a one percent success rate. What a disappointing statistic – and what many may unfortunately feel as a waste of time. The thing is research proves learning a new language is really good for us. It improves our cognition, makes us more creative, and helps us see things from other points of view. Of course, that would require actual learning, which ultimately requires real-world application and practice – not just reading a textbook.
Disrupt the Norm to Succeed
Recently, I had the pleasure of having Nick Chapman, President of Virtual Enterprises International on my radio show. Nick’s journey of transformation led him from aspiring rock star, to inner-city math teacher, to becoming the president of a global organization. In our conversation, Nick explained just what “Virtual Enterprise” education is.
After he found himself teaching inner-city freshman math, Nick’s school principal approached him about trying a new program in his classroom. The new method leveraged Virtual Enterprise, a class offered as a part of the traditional school day that teaches students business by having them actually practice business. The premise is the classroom transforms into an office where each student becomes an employee of a simulated company. Over the course of a year, students create and implement a business together – one class, one business. The program is built on a foundation of “learning by doing” – ultimately helping students gain experience and training in making decisions, solving problems, failing and succeeding. It’s an incredible concept and program – one that truly gives students a peek into what it takes to work with others and achieve success, together.
It wasn’t just Nick’s students though, that were learning and succeeding while “doing.” His dedication and willingness to implement something new for his students resulted in discovering new skills and opportunities for himself. His hands-on experience with Virtual Enterprise cultivated the passion and know-how to now run the same company that was introduced to him years ago.
For Those Not in High School Anymore…
It’s no different for all of us, regardless of age, experience, or focus. Learning by doing is ultimately how we evolve, transform, and succeed. After all, it isn’t until we are thrust into a situation that requires certain skills that we either fail, or quickly adapt and learn what is needed.
Even if our traditional means of education overlook some fundamental methods of effective learning, we have endless opportunities to seek out new experiences of growth and learning on our own. That’s how I got to where I am today – teaching, coaching and speaking with individuals about leadership, transformation and the power of communication.
Early on in my career, as I admired executives on Wall Street, I found myself asking, “what is it about these individuals that I admire so much?” What I came to conclude was something I couldn’t quite define – it was “executive presence.” And as I observed these individuals more, those who had this presence – this “x” factor I couldn’t define but knew it when I saw it – it was rooted on a foundation of superior communication skills. I wanted that for myself. With no formal classes on how to have executive presence however, I did something even more effective – I learned on the spot. I watched and studied their every move and mannerism. All day people were in presentations, either giving or receiving information. I studied them and ultimately forced myself to practice on the spot in order to cultivate those same skills. I realized that if I didn’t figure out how to significantly improve my communications skills, I’d be stuck where I was at— with little hope of advancement. I made it my mission to discover and achieve what set those executives apart, and now I coach others to achieve it for themselves.
Bottom line: people don’t achieve success in their careers based on the textbooks they read in high school or college. Instead, it’s the experience of life, application of those life lessons, and the perseverance through failure that yield great things. We must learn – and ultimately succeed – by doing.