Sunday, March 3, 2019

Building a general foundation first

A general foundation must be laid down before specialization can occur

Lately, I've been browsing a book when I have a little time entitled, Engaging 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students, written by noted educator Raleigh Philp. It's a good read. In it, he raises an interesting point that I'd like to spend some time here discussing and reflecting on. Here's a passage from pages 67-68:
Forced to Be a Generalist

Believe it or not, the real world is actually kinder to the adolescent than the world of school. The real world allows for specialization. It's very unlikely that you would ask your mechanic questions about biology or your supermarket-checker how to treat a serious illness. In high school, we expect children to become generalists and learn everything equally well. For many youth, adolescence is the worst time of their lives because it is the one time that you are expected to excel at everything, from algebra to art.

The need to be good at everything becomes a significant issue during adolescence. It's not surprising that some teenagers drop out of school or have a great deal of difficulty meeting expectations. Noted child psychiatrist Mel Levine says, "I really believe that some mentally challenged teenagers who drop out of school may not have true learning disorders but may have something called 'highly specialized minds' that are going to thrive when allowed to practice their specialties."
First off, I fully agree with Mr. Philp's statement, and with Mr. Levine, too, for that matter. This is, in fact, perhaps the only time in your life when you're expected to be a generalist - learning everything and doing decent at everything. College will be like this, as well, but to a lesser extent - while you're specializing in a particular area through your chosen major or technical or vocational program, you'll still need to take a number of core (also known as "gen ed") courses, like math, English, and science. Of course, we can't forget that there's a little freedom and flexibility for further exploration and specialization to be found in the form of elective courses, at both the high school and college levels. But you get the point being made here. So in this regard, Mr. Philp is right when he says that the "real world" is easier and more friendly. When you get into a career track, there's a lot more specialization - things that you'll be doing because you really want to be doing them.

However, despite Mr. Philp and Mr. Levine being correct in their observations, we must also realize that we each need to build a general foundation first, before we can go off into the world and master our chosen specialties. No matter what field(s) we choose to get into, we're going to need some basic and universal skills, capabilities, and understandings. And that's why we're in school for all these years. We can't get to the specific until we have the general foundation laid down.

Whatever our chosen paths, we're going to need to know how to work in groups and teams to accomplish goals. We're going to need to know how to communicate effectively with others. We're going to have to comprehend what we read. We won't have to be experts at research, but we better know where and how to search when conducting research, and have a firm understanding of what qualifies as credible sources. We'll need to know how to think critically. We'll need to know at least a basic level of math to help us in everyday life and work. We'll want to know the basics of our system of government and politics, since the law touches every business and industry, and just about every aspect of our lives. You get the point. We can go on and on. Again, that's why we're in school for all these years. We can't get to the specific until we have the general foundation laid down.

I never went far in math in either high school or college. It's definitely not my strong suit, and I don't have much of an interest in it. But I'll tell you what - I remember my multiplication tables. I can easily add, subtract, and divide in my head, and if something gets too big or complicated, I know how to do the math on paper. I can usually figure out percentages in my mind pretty easily, as well. I rely on these skills every day in a variety of life and work situations. Every day, I also rely on what I've learned in my English/writing/communications courses in high school and college for my work in marketing and for my abilities to give effective presentations and easily build relationships through networking. I've always loved social studies and civics subjects, and having that understanding of government and politics, economics, history, sociology, and philosophy, and of my rights and responsibilities as a citizen, has certainly carried over to my work in business and entrepreneurship.

We need that general foundation. That's why we're in school for all these years. And let's be totally honest with ourselves and with each other here - we're not going to love every course and subject, and there may be some things we'll never need to know or want to think about again. On the other hand, though, we also never know what we're going to need or want to revisit many years down the road, either. But that's the beauty of learning, and that's why we're building that foundation.       

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