A Blog post
What is the single most important subject a student can study?
- Mar 20, 2015
- Jared Wells
- In General Education
- 0 Comments
The follow is an exert from one of the handouts I provide after information night talks.
The Sailor King
In a far away land in a time long forgotten, there lived a great nation of sailors. These people built the fastest ships, produced the finest sailors, and prospered for many generations as a nation of adventurers.
One day, a neighboring Northern king came to visit the sailing nation to find out how he could replicate this success. He brought with him his finest scribes. These scribes documented what they saw as the sailing kingdom built its ships and prepared its young to become great sailors. After three years they returned home to replicate what they had seen.
In the coming years, the Northern King built great shipyards and sailing schools. Immense amounts of time, effort, and money were expended to ensure that these ships were well-provisioned and that the captains were properly-trained. As captains of their own ships, each was charged with preparing for her individual voyage. Some were highly motivated and had prepared their ships thoroughly. Others didn’t seem to put their best efforts forward, and their ships were clearly not ready for long journeys. In all cases, these ships set sail with great fanfare. Parents, teachers, ship builders, the king and his counsel stood on the docks with hope for their future.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Each year news returned that these captains were not as successful as they had hoped. So more time, effort, and expense were put into the next round of ships and captains. Many debates were waged as to how the ships were to be built and how the captains were to be trained in order to ensure success. And each year, success seemed to be more elusive.
Thousands of ships set sail annually. A few wrote home of wonderful journeys and the beautiful ports they now called home. But many simply continue to sail adrift or return for bigger and better ships and more training. Most eventually found a port or harbor to drop their anchors. But many didn’t feel very satisfied with the places they ended up.
So finally the North King humbly sent a messenger to the great sailing kingdom for help. The messenger returned from the sailing kingdom with a ten-year old boy.
“Why did the Sailor King send you?” asked the Northern King.
“I don’t know,” replied the boy. “The Sailor King only told me to see what I could see and help if I am able.”
So the king wrote a special document giving the boy complete access to his kingdom. “Return here in one week and tell me what you find,” ordered the king.
The boy set out and visited all the fine schools. The boy was impressed by how much the students were required to learn. He was even more impressed by how hard the students worked. He concluded that effort was not the problem. So the boy visited the ship yards and was equally impressed with how soundly the ships were built and provisioned for journeys. He concluded that the ships were suitable for sailing and that supplies were not likely the problem. Finally, the boy attended a graduation and launching ceremony. The students received their captain’s commissions and after a great celebratory feast, each set sail.
The boy was beginning to doubt the Sailor King’s wisdom in sending him on this assignment. He watched as the last ship was about to set sail. The last ship was always the best of the fleet and was awarded to the finest student. The boy ran past the dock guards with his pass in hand and jumped on board just as it was untied from its moorings. The boy slowly walked every step of the ship, finding no flaw in its construction. He made his way to the ships wheel where the young captain was skillfully giving orders to his crew. The captain turned to head to his cabin when he noticed the boy.
“So what do you think about my ship and my sailing ability?” the captain asked.
“I think your ship is one of the finest I have ever seen and your sailing is flawless,” the boy honestly replied. “I’m afraid that I have failed.” The boy looked dejected. “Captain, I need to return to your king. May I ask where you are going?”
The captain looked surprised by the question. “What did you ask?”
“Where are you going?” the boy repeated.
“Well, I’m sailing?” The captain was perplexed by the boy’s question.
Just then, the boy noticed something missing from the ships wheel. “Captain, where is your compass?”
“Compass? What’s a compass?” asked the captain.
“You know, a compass. You use it with your maps.”
“Maps?” The captain replied.
The boy now understood. “Captain, if we can return to your king. I think I have found what I’ve been looking for.”
The boy wrote a report to the North King:
“In the effort to build the best ships and develop the best trained captains, you have left out the things that provide them with meaning and purpose.
You didn’t give them maps and you didn’t teach them how to use a compass. You forgot that the ship and training were simply tools designed to help the captains get somewhere. But without a map and compass your captains lacked that ability to navigate. Further, a map and compass requires the captain to consider where they are and when they want to be. In order to get excited about the journey and destination, they needed to know about themselves and the world beyond their shores. Knowing about the world would helped them understand what parts of the world that were interesting to them. It would have helped them understand parts of the world they wanted to avoid. It would have created deeper purpose and meaning in their preparations. And it would have given them the vision and desire needed to overcome the significant challenges they would face.”
The map and compass represents the most important things we can give students: the opportunity for students to learn about themselves and how they connect to the world around them. It allows them to participate more fully in the process of deciding on a direction and planning their course. With strong navigation skills, it is OK if the direction changes over time. That is the nature of adventure and exploration.
Now let’s think about of all the things required of students on a daily basis. What clear lines can be drawn between their education today and what you would like to see for them in the future? What are the most important things they are learning in school? What things have the best chance of producing happy, successful, problem-solving adults in a rapidly changing world?
This question has been debated by education policy makers for nearly 100 years. It led to national policy like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the new nationally formed Common Core Curriculum guides. As compelling as these debates on education are, largely absent from these discussions are the two most important people in K-12 education, the parent and the child.
You might receive a well thought out answer about the pros and cons of our current education system from a researcher or policy-maker. But pick any core academic course and ask, “Why do you need to take this course?” Ask students how it will it help in their life beyond formal education. If your child is like 99% of the thousands of students I have interviewed, he or she won’t have much of an answer.
Consequently, most students passively go through the motions of education and lose much of what they learned within weeks and months of completing a course. Even the best and brightest students, who are able to retain information, have a difficult time communicating how specific learning will benefit them in the future. Most students have a vague idea that education will lead to a good job, one they like and one that makes good money. Unfortunately, for many students this vague promise is not enough to motivate them to dig beyond the superficial nature of homework, memorization, and tests.
If we have any hope of improving education, we must start with and never lose sight of the student. Without a student-centered focus, students lose the connection between what they are learning and how that learning will help them to get more of what they want in the world. Without it, education can become rote and mechanical, something to be survived.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. And in many ways, this is not the school's problem. It is the student’s and parent's problem. Parents and students play the most important part in fixing it. Looking at education in a new light can lead a parent and student to making much more sense of the education the student is receiving. Through mentoring and support, students can create clear connections between learning in school and what the world will require of them in the future. Student who understand the true value of education and how it can directly lead their to getting much more of what they want will be able to learn in any environment.
The most important subject students can learn about is Themselves! (This includes how they relate to the world around them.)
You may be tempted to dismiss this. “Well, of course the student and the world around them are important. Tell me something I don’t know.” However, as a professional educator tasked with helping to turn struggling students’ around, I can tell you that almost every problem students face in their education comes down to not putting these two subjects at the center of their education. Ask your child what the last exam they took was. Then ask why it was important to learn. Ask why it is important and how it will help him or her get more of what he or she wants, now and in the future. I’m willing to bet that you are not going to get much in the way of an answer.
Educational challenges are much more difficult to overcome without a clear connection to personal meaning. Most students are going to school because they have to and because they have bought into the vague idea that school will help them get a good job in the future. Ask students what a good job looks like and they will likely tell you, “One that makes good money and one that I like.” That’s not a very compelling vision of the future. I’m not suggesting that students need to know what they are going to be doing as adults. I am saying that who they are and the reality of the changing world around them should not be ignored.
The single most important thing you can do to support your children is to help them explore who they are and how they want to relate to the world around them. This knowledge drives everything else. Ninety-nine obstacles mean nothing if there is one path to success as your children define it. By knowing themselves and the world around them, their education can help them find that path. Without knowing themselves, education becomes rote, mechanical, and something to survive.
I invite you to check out What Color Is Your Parachute For Teens, by Carol Christen and Richard N. Bolles. It’s packed with great exercises to help teens get to know themselves better. Check out www.roadtripnation.com. A great resource to help young people find their passion. Also check out TheYouSchool.com TheYouSchool provides a mentored exploration of self.
The most important subject students can study is themselves!
Got a question? We'd love to hear from you.
Send us a message and we'll respond as soon as possible.