The debate over the future of public education is not new. Depending upon your personal or professional circle, you will have heard many conflicting arguments about how and why the public education system should be reformed.

In the United States, where I hail from, there has been a “crisis” in public education most of my life, going back at least to 1983 with the publication of Paul Copperman’s study “A Nation At Risk.”

Since then, American education has been buffeted by proposals for reform which include Charter Schools, private school vouchers, Magnet Schools and which has witnessed the appearance of a nation-wide “School Choice”movement.

It is reasonable to ask what underlies this debate. One answer: uncertainty.

Today, parents want to know that the educational system will properly prepare their children for a volatile job market and they want to be reassured that their children will emerge from schooling with the capacity and skill necessary to navigate that market.

What is educational success in this context?

Increasingly it means landing full-time work with health and retirement benefits rather than becoming trapped in what the British call the “gig economy” of part time work and just-in-time labour. College and university-age students want to know if they will be able to find work that will enable them to pay off loans, establish personal savings and acquire a professional competitive edge.

I imagine that you have heard all of this before. But there is another side to this discussion that is often debated in private, but which I’ve seldom seen addressed in publications: Why do many young adults from middle class families lack initiative in the work place?

Before I address this question, let me offer an anecdote. My partner is in Retail Management and over the eight years of our marriage and in my work as a small business owner, I have listened to and spoken with many supervisors, managers, small business owners and employers who have complained that many of their young employees (high schools students, college and university students, recent graduates) lack initiative and have to be told what to do.

This complaint is widespread. When I ask them what type of employee they are looking for I always receive the same answer: a problem-solver, someone with initiative.

In the Acton Academy modules we use here at Infinity School, problem solving and initiative are central. We employ project-based learning, which is a problem-driven approach to learning.

Our Eagles are asked to apply themselves to creative and complex tasks and are not shown how to solve problems. They are also required to work together to find solutions. We call these projects “Quests” and they cover a wide range of disciplines including entomology, entrepreneurship, civics, physics, rocketry, machine-building and outdoor education, to name but a few.

Guides like me only introduce the topics, offer prompts and ask questions, we do not teach the topics. We are available to assist and evaluate problems with our Eagles, but we do not direct.

An advantage of Project-based learning is that it provides students with a loosely structured system of trial-and-error. By loosely, I mean that Infinity School Eagles are never told what is a good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate problem solving method.

They are free to fail or succeed as often as they like. One rationale behind this approach is that it is precisely the kind of training suited not only to working in or launching a small business, but is relevant to people working in creative, scientific and corporate fields as well. It is a model that prizes trial-and-error and personal initiative.

The right answers are answers that work, not answers provided by a standardized test or through teacher approval. And best of all, the Quest approach requires that our Eagles present their findings to the public. Real stakes are involved.

The reason Project-based learning has grown in popularity, not only among Acton Academy parents but also within many educational communities, is that it leads to pluck and grit and self-reliance.

One appeal of self-reliance is that it can replace the need for certainty; it can help a student move away from relying upon external approval and become inner directed. The need for certainty is often the sign of an underlying fear.

Over the course of my career as an educator, I have experienced this fear as I have asked myself whether what I am teaching my students is right; whether it will guarantee their success either on a test or in life. But I have learned that certainty itself is a chimera.

Project-based learning has helped to guide me away from the need for certainty and to embrace the healthful benefits of uncertainty, collaboration and trial-and-error.

But best of all, embracing uncertainty and working collaboratively enables me -and others- to learn how to accept feedback, seek second opinions and not to feel that I have to have all of the answers all of the time. That is what I would call true “vocational training.”

 

We are running tours all summer and accepting applications for new students. Please visit our website for more information: www.infinityschool.ca.

-Jeremy Marks, Infinity School Lead Guide