What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

By: Diane Tavenner

Published: 2019

Read: 2020


What do you enjoy doing? What are you good at? What is the best way to pursue these interests (and contribute to society)? Schools are typically not designed to help kids answer these questions. Instead, schools tend to encourage kids to be the same as everyone else (just better). Kids end up having to make false trade-offs and lack practical skills when they exit the educational system.

The author is the founder of Summit Public Schools and this book outlines Summit’s philosophy on how schools can do better, which can roughly be summarized as project-based learning, self-direction (with appropriate guidance / mentoring) and working in teams:

  • Better learning through projects: deep dives, investigate real, messy, complicated issues.
  • Better motivation through self-direction: set realistic goals, track meaningful progress.
  • Better collaboration through working in teams: figure out what you like doing and what you can contribute (because you’re good at it).

When kids are motivated and work together on real problems, they are more likely to develop productive habits and skills. In the process, they become better learners and acquire more knowledge through the virtuous cycle of authentic curiosity: discovering and following their own interests, kids learn more and as they learn more, they get better at learning. 

Armed with productive habits and skills, kids stand a better chance of becoming self-sufficient, happy, contributing members of society.

Worth Reading:

The best thing about this book is that it applies a simple, broad and universal framework to investigate its subject matter (how to better prepare kids for what comes next): figure out what you like, what you’re good at and how to use that knowledge to make better choices about your future.

Because of this approach, the book’s pragmatic lessons apply not just to kids or the (US) educational system but to anyone that wants to find a productive way to figure out “what should come next” and how to prepare for it.

The answers provided (discover your strengths and likes, use them to build productive habits and set meaningful and purposeful goals) are relevant regardless of your stage of life (and are very familiar to the conclusions of “adult books” such as “The Happiness Hypothesis”). Similarly, creating an environment that maximizes curiosity matters as much for adults as it does for kids.

Introducing these concepts early on in life and incorporating them in some way into the educational system has to be beneficial.

The book’s focus is broad (preparing kids for a fulfilled life), but at times, its own view on what comes next can seem a bit narrow (what comes next is mostly defined as “college”). Creating that option is obviously great, but it would be more in line with the book’s general philosophy and spirit to embrace a vision of what comes next that is less fixed and that includes a wider variety of options, especially given the rising costs of college education relative to post-college earning power (see also the podcast of Sam Harris with Scott Galloway on the fast increasing ratio of college costs to post-college salaries).

As much potential as this approach seems to have, I have no idea how realistic it is to expect this type of approach to be followed by schools more widely. It is very clear from Summit’s own experience as described in the book that it requires a lot of work to make it work even in just one school (and it’s even more challenges to try to scale the approach – see Bill Gates’ 2020 annual letter). Similarly, incorporating these concepts into parenting is likely to be both worthwhile and demanding.  Let’s see.

Key Takeaways

  • Curated exploration.
    • Curate and select options.
    • Provide choice within.
  • Follow your interests.
    • Interests -> curiosity -> learn more -> get better at learning.
  • Realistic matching.
    • Realistic sense of self (interests, strengths, skills).
    • Realistic sense of options (credible, relevant pathways).

Key Concepts

Why prepare

  • Education prepares you for what comes next.
    • Outdated.
      • Outdated definition of “what comes next”.
      • Narrow focus on work, career.
    • Standardized.
      • Reflects assembly line requirements of work in the past.
      • Ability to work rapidly and for long periods of time.
      • Ability to memorize details and follow directions.
  • Triggers arms race for qualifications.
    • Be the same as everyone else, only better (see “The End of Average”).
  • Doesn’t match today’s work environment and skill requirements:
    • Complex problem solving.
    • Critical thinking.
    • Creativity. 
    • People management.
    • Coordinating with others.
    • Emotional intelligence.
  • Leads to false choices.
    • Financial stability vs. relationships vs. health, etc.
  • Need a broader definition: 
    • Help kids to define the world they want to live in.
    • Provide them with the skills needed to contribute.

How to Prepare

Better learning through projects.

  • Project-based Learning (PBL).
    • Gain knowledge and skills over an extended period of time.
    • Investigate authentic, engaging, complex questions, problems or challenges.
  • Think deeply, make connections, solve problems.
    • Better understanding leads to better and longer preserved learning (than textbooks).
  • Real life has fewer and fewer clearly defined tasks that provide immediate feedback.
    • PBL is a better preparation for dealing with these messy, complicated issues.
  • Seek out real world opportunities to engage opinion and participation.

Better motivation through self-direction, setting goals

  • Education’s basic premise.
    • Kids need to know certain information.
    • Job of the school is to present and teach that information.
    • Job of the student is to learn that information and demonstrate mastery.
  • Almost any student can master almost any information.
    • At different paces, using different processes (also see “The End of Average”).
  • Self-directed learning drives motivation:
      • Mastery: becoming good at something.
  • Self-directed learning cycle:
    • Set a goal that is rooted in some purpose.
      • Specific.
      • Measurable,
      • Actionable.
      • Realistc.
      • Timebound
    • Make a plan.
    • Carry out the plan.
    • Reflect.
  • Behaviors that power the cycle.
    • Strategy-shifting.
    • Challenge-seeking.
    • Persistence.
    • Responding to setbacks.
    • Appropriate help-seeking.
  • Progress is lumpy.
  • Curate options, give choice within it.
    • Guidance and informed suggestions.

Better understanding of what comes next through reflection.

  • The point of reflection is to inform the setting of the next goal
    • Improvement, progress, from wherever you are in the process.
  • Focus on the “ings”.
    • Figure out what you are interested in doing, what you care about.
    • Match with next step will be meaningful, purposeful.
  • Guided by mentor.
    • Ask questions that provoke reflections.
      • What they want, who they are, what they care about, etc.
      • Action emerges not because “I told you so”, but because it is an authentic choice.
    • Don’t direct.
      • Listen, don’t interrupt.
    • Ask the right questions: open-ended, why, desired outcomes.

Better contribution through working together, collaborating.

  • Problem with majority rule:
    • Loser is often not incentivized to cooperate.
  • Consensus: more chance of agreement, cooperation and accountability.
  • Setting norms for pragmatic decision making in groups:
    • Decision grid.
      • Identify and document people’s status on decisions: propose, input, decide, veto.
      • Changes decision making dynamics (no one wants to make all the decisions, chose your battles, etc.).
      • Status: gather facts and opinions, no editing.
      • Target: define the criteria for an optimal solution.
      • Proposal: develop roadmap to get from status to target.
  • Working in teams goes wrong when:
    • Task doesn’t make sense to work on as a team (rote, linear tasks).
    • No adult oversight and support.
  • Understand how you can contribute.
    • Self-awareness: know your strengths.

What is Prepared

Building blocks – the habits that matter.

  • Healthy development:
    • Attachment.
    • Stress management.
    • Self-regulation.
  • School readiness:
    • Self-awareness.
    • Empathy / relationship skills.
    • Executive function.
  • Mindset for school and self:
    • Growth mindset.
    • Self-efficacy.
    • Sense of belonging.
    • Relevance of school.
  • Perseverance:
    • Resilience.
    • Agency.
    • Academic tenacity.
  • Independence and sustainability:
    • Self-direction.
    • Curiosity.
    • Purpose.
  • Being prepared: last category is the ultimate destination.

Curiosity drives accumulation of knowledge, getting better at learning

  • Virtuous cycle of curiosity.
    • Learning begins with curiosity.
    • Triggers seeking for answers.
    • Enabling kids to follow their curiosities and interests, they learn more.
    • As they learn more, they get better at learning.
  • Expose (spark interest), explore (do projects) and pursue.
  • Authenticity matters.
  • Leverage and engage with technology.
    • Low-cost way to explore interests.
    • Provide guidance to use technology responsibly (media-free locations and times).
  • Engage in knowledge acquisition together.

Developing universal skills

  • Measurable and teachable skills.
  • Skills + habits + specific knowledge.

Concrete Next Step

  • What is the next “best-fit” experience:
    • Consistent with how you view yourself: sense of who you are.
    • Purposeful and realistic.
    • Fully informed choice from a set of real options: sense of what the world has to offer.
    • Supported by family and community.
  • Create options, explore relevant pathways that align with your mental picture.
  • Encourage Plan B thinking.
    • Encourages flexibility.
    • Better understanding of Plan A.

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