The items that come to mind when you hear the word ‘education’ are things like school bags, uniforms, headmasters, arithmetic and whiteboards or chalk boards—depending on your age. This is institutional education. It works for some, but not all. Instead, can we explore vocational education? Could reframing education from ‘institutional’ to ‘vocational’ be the ticket to empowering a generation in finding their true calling in life?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores how some of the world’s most influential thinkers spent 10,000 hours on tasks, in a period of self education, on their way to mastery. Malcolm refers to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Beatles and other luminaries. Sure, the 10,000 hours thing isn’t exact science, but it’s a great read and, for me, the idea that when you find something you love, investing all your time into it becomes easy, no matter how hard the work. Is this ‘vocational education’ pathway valid? Who said that education has to be delivered inside the four walls of an institution?
To start with, ‘vocation’ is a really ugly word. Saying or reading the word just feels wrong, like you’re mispronouncing ‘vacation’. Using it feels as dirty as succumbing to some hot-for-five-minutes, word-mashup buzzword like ‘gamify’, ‘intrapreneur’ and ‘frappuccino’ Please, excuse me as I clear my throat… I’ll leave my full exploration of buzzwords to another article! Especially as ‘vocation’ isn’t really a buzzword. Its definition is gold in the context of education: “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation”.
One of the reasons I like the meaning so much is that as a kid coming out of high school, I struggled to find what I really wanted to do. I had no idea how to turn my education into a career and it was an unexpectedly stressful time. I wonder, how many other kids (and parents) struggle with the same transition? When I finally figured it out, the feeling was incredibly uplifting, empowering and revitalising. I empathise with anyone who is unsure of where they’re going in life. How can education help? Could all that time at school (substantially more than 10,000 hours) be put to more efficient use?
Institutional education comes with plenty of stigma and baggage, and that association can be incredibly hard to shake. Personally, I look back at my school years with fond memories, but many don’t. Can schools increase their effectiveness and the student’s engagement levels by helping them identify their vocations far earlier? Picture all those kids sliding through the cracks, doing work that bores them batty, suddenly spending all their hours doing something they love. Would we see fewer kids struggling with the rigidity of the traditional, one-size-fits-all system? This is reframing ‘institutional educational’ to ‘vocational education’, and isn’t it empowering?
The risk we’re trying to curtail is misdirected energy. How do you feel about kids channelling 10,000 hours into something as seemingly futile as the third-person shooter game Fortnite? The hours that kids have spent on this online gaming phenomenon have spawned an entire industry and generation of online gamers. Whilst I don’t expect the names Ali-A or DanTDM to be thrown alongside Jobs or Gates anytime soon, it’s interesting to see how something as trivial as a computer game has been able to provide careers for early adopters. Ask any kid about what they want to be when they grow up, and if any of them say ‘influencer’, punch yourself (or them) in the face, but be ready, as plenty of them are already saying ‘gamer’.
(This is the ‘floss dance’ )
Whilst you’re probably as sick as me of walking around town and randomly (and possibly inappropriately) seeing kids doing the ‘floss dance’ in places as banal as the checkout line at Coles, stop to think about how suddenly there are now scores of kids that have a new interest in dancing. Could this birth a resurgence in dance classes and dance-related offshoots? Heck, something as tangential as dance therapy actually does sound plausible. I can see it now, in 15 years time, when this generation are getting loose on the dance floor, they’ll be having a great time getting retro with their favourite Fortnite dance moves. Today, my son celebrated that he can now do the ‘worm’. And yes, don’t worry, I punched myself in the face.
Whilst I digress, the points I’m making are:
1 — We have no idea what the future holds
2 — The future has a habit of surprising us
3 — Who knows the jobs our kids will be doing in the future.
Think about it, the jobs of the future don’t even exist today. It’s a perspective proposed by futurist, author, public speaker and my good friend, Steve Sammartino, who we recently hosted at our first ever Gippslandia event.
When I finished year 12 in 1999, I was a creative kid with no idea what I was doing; and the following careers did not exist: UI/UX designer (user interface/user experience), app developer, blogger, drone operator, online video producer, YouTuber or social media strategist. Nineteen years later, I find myself dabbling in or aligning myself with all of the aforementioned professions in some way through our design studio, The View From Here (note, I did NOT write ‘influencer’ there). Even the terms ‘brand designer’ or ‘brand strategist’, my actual jobs, were only fledgling professions when I left school.
With the insight that many of the jobs of the future don’t exist yet, doesn’t that throw into question how we educate our youth?
Steve’s perspective and stance on education is more cutting than mine, but still worthwhile considering:
“School taught me three really important things. It taught me to read, to write and to count. Pretty much that is where it ends. At university the process of being inside it taught me how to learn. While I’m being somewhat flippant, if I actually break it down and look hard at the subjects taken and the lessons learned, there wasn’t much outside of these things. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that everything important I know, including how to make a living, and how to interact with other humans and my family, I taught myself. I owe all of what I learned to my family, my friends, observation and my self-curated library.”
Steve lays it down pretty brutally, but it opens us to an appreciation that we have much to learn about how we learn. The traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are far from all we need to get on well in life. Financial success, happiness, our ability to connect with other humans, empathy, emotional intelligence and so on, these topics are pivotal to personal success, but for so many decades they have escaped the school curriculum. My understanding is that modern high school education is now working hard to change this, but the fact remains, book smarts now don’t necessarily result in healthy bank accounts later.
As I conclude, let me stress: I’m not advocating against institutional education, quite the opposite in fact. To illustrate the point: if aliens arrived on Earth and saw ‘a select group of wise elders passing knowledge to their youth in order to prepare them for the future’, you’d think they’d make a positive assessment. Where I see an opportunity is through the exploration of vocational development at an earlier age, as it may represent a possibility to increase the potency of the time spent at school, TAFE or university. Helping kids channel their energies into topics of interest in the school system could stimulate a vanguard of inspired and motivated adults who feel more fulfilled with their careers. For someone who did great at school, but did it aimlessly with no idea where I was going, I know I would have massively benefited from a system like this. Thankfully, I figured it out. Eventually.
There’s a great phrase that I often go back to. It’s the kind found in a cheap pack of fortune cookies, but I’m still fond of it, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”. Whether it be through formal education or self exploration, I have a pointed message for our high school students picking subjects or courses for the upcoming year. Take what you love doing, use it to find your vocation and chase it hard, and the education will follow in turn.
Four little footnotes: My interest in our theme this issue is particularly vested with my four young children Sebastian, Adele, William and Rose destined to experience the opportunities and challenges we’re exploring. It’s them and their peers who will have to endure tomorrow the decisions we make collectively today.
I must also add, with young William gracing the cover. I felt it only fair to let them all get a small share of the spotlight, especially with Sebastian having begged me for the past seven issues to be on the cover! Please excuse my indulgence (or fatherly balancing act – however you choose to see it).