Preparing children for life?


How often do we, as teachers, tell children that the experiences they encounter in school are designed to “prepare you for life/the real world?” We place rules, uniform, curriculum content into a box called “Future” and dole it out without really thinking if any of them are true.

We conveniently ignore that their lives are already being lived and are quite real. We demand that they are future focused while we turn a blind eye to the present.

As a parent, I’ve done the same. “When you grow up…” “You’ll need this in the future…” and so on. We bring our neurosis to bear on their present every single day. But I made a fundamental mistake as a mother by spacing my children out seven to eight years apart. The eldest two are grown and the youngest one is sitting staring at me with an eyebrow raised. An eyebrow that says without vocalising it “you big, fat liar!”

He wears a shirt and tie to school every day. His brother works in an award winning advertising agency in London in jeans and a t-shirt.

He’s told that play comes after work. His brother has a ping pong table, darts board and pool table in his office. He’s encouraged to take play breaks to aid his thinking. His company thinks they get better productivity and creativity our of their employees that way. And they do.

He’s told not to swear. His brother’s company’s mission statement is “Give a Shit.”

Middle child is at art school. It’s been a sharp learning curve for him. No-one really seems to be that bothered about his technical skill – it’s something that they assume he has (or he wouldn’t have won his place or got his A Level grades I guess). They are interested in his capacity to make meaning, to make connections, to develop ideas in multiple ways, to experiment with the unfamiliar and make something of it. They even expect him to work and produce work in groups. There are tutorials and support sessions on skill and technique, or course. But what they want is a brain that thinks, interprets the world and creates.

Youngest child copies existing artists and their works of art at school.

I read on twitter that creativity, critical thinking, independence, time management and all the other skills that my older boys are expected to have in droves as they enter the adult world, come naturally from knowledge. But they don’t. They need to be practiced and experienced as much as maths, as much as reading. They need to be rooted in now. Otherwise, we are sending droves of children out into a world of work that they are not prepared for. For what is this world of work today? We have an endless number of jobs in which people can wear uniforms, follow orders, comply – but they tend to be the lowest paid jobs. The ones on minimum wage and zero hours contracts. The best jobs? They demand more than compliance and much more than knowledge. Perhaps that’s why some of the world’s leading companies are now taking blind applications in which there is no space for qualifications or the name of the candidate. Perhaps it is why many of them are bypassing degrees and looking to apprenticeships instead.

That’s not to say that learning and qualifications don’t matter. Of course they do. Eldest boy is an Oxbridge graduate. He didn’t get in there by playing pool. But he also didn’t get in there by simply having exam grades either. The interview was designed to make him reach and connect. It had nothing whatsoever to do with a single text he’d studied in school. Everything centred around his external reading, his thoughts, his interpretations, his ability to think on his feet and his ability to look another human being in the eye, connect and communicate.

My youngest child looks to the future and he sees that work can be fun. Hard, challenging, frustrating, tiring, but fun. He sees that people judge you on your outcomes not your appearance. He sees that his brothers cannot make their way in their chosen fields without getting on well with other people. He sees that uniforms are largely irrelevant in theirs and their friends’ lives. But that imagination, communication, interaction, empathy and graft matter a lot. What do we do in schools to make children experience that so that it is the norm and not the exception?


33 thoughts on “Preparing children for life?

  1. Superb article, but it makes you wonder why extreme discipline is gaining ground in our schools. The latest example is Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. See this article.

    This is an excerpt from the behaviour policy.

    “At Charter you sit up straight at all times and you never slouch. Teachers have a seating plan and you sit at the seat they have allocated. When you read you always follow the text with your ruler, with both hands on the ruler. This helps you concentrate, so you remember more and understand more. When you are not writing or reading you sit up straight with your arms folded. Your teachers will instruct you: “3,2,1 SLANT!” Everyone will sit up extra straight, eyes front, looking at the teacher. You will follow their instructions first time, every time. The same rules apply to all, so are fair to all. No exceptions.”

    As Debra points out this is no way to prepare school students for ‘the real world of life and work’.

    Yet the DfE and OfSTED endorse approaches like this, the Daily Mail it, and the heads of such schools get standing ovations at Conservative Party Conferences.

    1. I am not so sure. The uniformerisation of business and indeed the face-fits model of some organisations implies, to me, the earlier people learn to conform to a certain lifestyle the better off they will be. The tragedy of the latest farago in Parliament is how following serious crime people close ranks and instruct the victim to keep quiet.

      1. Paul – I do not understand your comment. You seem to be suggesting that schools should tell children that as the world is full of nasty bullying institutions it has a duty to bully them into adopting an attitude of mindless conformity in their own interests.

  2. We need to question the way schools are judged as uniform Good, no uniform Bad. In 40 yrs in education I have known Good and bad in each. Some of the best schools (academic, artistic, generally creative etc) haven’t had uniform, but there could well have been equally good with uniform. Worryingly I’m not sure that the best schools would shine under the Ofsted regime despite the excellent maths, english, science, art, music. As a parent as well as a teacher I would be putting ticks in my boxes that I suspect Ofsted haven’t even dreamed off.

  3. Absolutely agree here. Interesting how the most successful have least rules & routine to abide by. My eldest is in final year of maths degree, and many of their assignments are collaborative group work tasks. All the dissertation titles available to him are about real-life situations or making meaning from the hypothetical. My friend who is a planning consultant has to adapt policy and law to real sites juggling with demands of architects, finance and local authority priorities. Few days require suits and office uniform. It is my youngest son in his weekend washing up job, who wears a uniform to work, signs in & out. Just like he had to at school.

  4. Hello. My problem with this is that it is argument from personal experience; and an attempt to extrapolate from that. I lead a group of 30 scientists; we don’t have pool tables and games rooms or a dart board. My guys all have degrees, and most have higher degrees. They need to be clever, sharp, care for their own well being and the well being of their colleagues, their clients and the company. They need to work hard, get stuff done within the time available, not work evenings and weekends; they need to know alot, be imaginative with that knowledge, work collaboratively, but also on their own, take responsibility for what they do; and care. They wear what they like to work, but also dress in a way they consider to be respectful and smart when meeting clients. They have to make a lot of decisions.

    What does this tell us about what their schooling should have been like? I’ve no idea. What message would this give to your youngest?

    I don’t think that we should be thinking about future work when we design schooling. I think we should be attempting to give the students the opportunity to become the best they can be. My job is to take it from there, to train, re-train, lead them into personal and professional growth. Education professionals will have different views on what will give students the opportunity to become the best they can be. I’m not convinced there is one path to that; but I’m also not convinced we can determine the possible paths by looking at the work place.

  5. I know we are on different sides of the knowledge vs skills debate but lets try and articulate the strongest form of each others arguments.

    Problem solving is a form of knowledge. This doesn’t have to be taught independently, you can practice a wide variety of specific examples, making explicit links to fundamental principles before cross-bridging those ideas. The opposing view is that we shouldn’t talk about generic creativity and problems, but that they are largely context specific (especially for beginners). This seems a valid explanation for how creativity develops, even if it is not your preferred explanation. Our views here would ideally be based on our interpretation of the evidence between the two theories.

    We can’t easily link anything we learn to future needs, any correlation to specific ideas is small at best, however a hundred pennies makes a pound. The idea of future jobs skills does not flow from a knowledge based curriculum, which is usually advocated on Hirschian ideas of preparing students to engage culturally with society. These ideas are in fact closer to discovery/problem based learning, but with the type of problem tightly defined), I think you are combing several opposing theories of education here into one monstrous gestalt of an opponent.

    An alternative view is that we can cast a wide net, delving deep into specific areas (ones that we have access to in detail via school or home), this happens naturally in a supportive home environment, and I think it is close to what you are advocating.

    Knowledge covers both procedure and facts (and a lot more, please google the definition of the word it may surprise you), the key philosophical difference is the argument around whether these should be specifically taught and demonstrated or allowing them to flow naturally from inquiry (guided or otherwise). Both methods include problem solving/creativity they just get there by different routes. We could make more progress by focusing our arguments on this specific debate rather then a general broadside against all incoming foes.

    1. I think you’re assuming we sit on opposite sides of a ‘debate’ that I really don’t see the point of. Knowledge and skills are inextricably connected so the idea of either/or is moot. Positioning me on a ‘side’ is presumptuous. You also seem to assume that I am forming an argument rather than making an observation about the kind of conversations we have with children which are clouded in future but are really about present compliance. On the matter of creativity, I’d suggest you read Anna Abraham, a neuroscientist specialising in creativity and who challenges the rather outdated model of S-O-R which is what you refer to. So what I am really asking, is not whether knowledge or skills matter more but rather whether the way we present children with a flawed and uninformed view of ‘future’ as a means of managing their present undermines our credibility as adults. I’m also wondering what we are doing in school to not ‘teach’ skills, (which I don’t think can be effectively taught without context), but rather how much time are we giving children to utilise, apply and explore knowledge in ways that value talk, interaction with others and independence of outcome. If that’s monstrous to you, then so be it.

      1. I agree that the knowledge vs skills argument misses the point, which is the need for articulacy and deep understanding. I discuss this here.

        The employment contexts that you mention have in common learning cultures based on teamwork and debate. I know I am always going on about Vygotsky, but I do believe that he nailed it with his view that knowledge emerges on ‘the social plane’, but only becomes deep personal understanding when it can be rationally assembled onto the web of personal schemas already present in the mind of the learner. Einstein achieved this almost entirely through his solitary ‘thought experiments’ (metacognition), but most learners are also best helped through ‘peer debate’ in a culture where all the contributors feel free to reveal their personal hurdles to understanding, which when pooled can result in qualitative breakthroughs in personal cognition.

        What does this culture look like like? The answer is a university level seminar. Can this be achieved in schools? Yes it can at all ages including infants. Shayer and Adey’s book, ‘Learning Intelligence’ has many examples.

        However the ‘extreme discipline’ movement exemplified by Great Yarmouth Charter Academy is solidly founded on the long discredited ‘bucket theory of learning’, which marketisation and Academisation is resurrecting at a frightening pace in our Academies and Free Schools.

      2. I was going off what you wrote. “I read on twitter that creativity, critical thinking, independence, time management and all the other skills that my older boys are expected to have in droves as they enter the adult world, come naturally from knowledge. But they don’t.” That was why I defined how creativity can come from knowledge without specifically teaching it. I believe you have expressed similar sentiments before. You are correct that you mainly make observation but you clearly use them to articulate arguments and positions to the reader. Readers are meant to take from this post that knowledge curriculum’s are not a good idea and that creativity needs to be focused on, that is a position. You are using rhetorical argument, but this is still an argument.

  6. Apologises for the barrage of ideas, currently wired on multiple expressos, after fixing the student café coffee grinder.

    1. You seem to have skipped this bit though…”That’s not to say that learning and qualifications don’t matter. Of course they do. Eldest boy is an Oxbridge graduate. He didn’t get in there by playing pool. But he also didn’t get in there by simply having exam grades either. The interview was designed to make him reach and connect. It had nothing whatsoever to do with a single text he’d studied in school. Everything centred around his external reading, his thoughts, his interpretations, his ability to think on his feet and his ability to look another human being in the eye, connect and communicate.” Let’s not make this a tiresome ‘some people are anti-knowledge’ debate. It is not.

      1. I didn’t skip it. I simply didn’t focus on it, please stop redirecting points and consider engaging with a specific point. Learning and qualifications are sufficiently vague enough to not contradict the quote on knowledge. I assume this is were you came to the conclusion that you had been called anti-knowledge leading to your subsequent post. Please reread my earlier replies, I really didn’t do that.(and it took a lot of effort to keep it neutral)

  7. I love school uniforms and so do my kids. Saves fights/hassle in the morning and prevents a culture of “I’m wearing Nike and you’re not”. As you mention, many, many jobs require uniforms. Your sons workplace experience ie pingpong tables etc would probably be an exception to the general rule don’t you think? Not every office is run like Google.

    That aside, your argument seems to centre around a need to mould education so it better reflects the “real world” of people without uniforms and ping pong tables so that students are prepared well for the workforce. I don’t actually think that our schools should be about preparing for the workforce. I think they should be centred around sharing the greatest ideas in the world. Our students should be well educated, not necessarily for a futuristic workforce, but because it’s really important that people know stuff. This knowledge, with which they will think and apply, will prepare them to become successful critical/creative thinkers not a lack of uniform or some ideological notion that me must challenge all authority.

    1. Tempe – The impact of school uniform on effective learning has been subject ti extensive research. For example by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The result is always the same – little or no impact. I agree with you that cheap and practical school uniforms have merit in making life simpler and more convenient for students and parents. However in our marketised school system expensive, impractical school uniforms are used by schools to deter enrolment by the children of poorer parents, which are less likely to improve the ‘reputation’ of the school.

  8. Further, deferring to the authority – or the expert – in the case of the teacher is beneficial because in general a student is a novice and has not accumulated enough knowledge to simply defy/argue with a teacher. To argue against authority, just for the sake of it, makes no sense. In addition, an orderly class room is surely preferable to a chaotic one where each and every child regardless of knowledge/ability is encouraged to contradict/argue with the teacher. It is obvious that in such an environment the shy child would become invisible and little to no learning would occur, just sounding off by the more confident students.

    1. This is nonsense and implies the ‘Bucket Theory of Learning’.

      To ‘argue’ makes perfect sense. Indeed it is essential for deep learning and should be encouraged by good teachers and schools. It starts with arguing with oneself (metacognition) and is best developed by arguing (debating) with peers with the encouragement of the teacher. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about this – just the outcome of sound research. See

  9. PS: I speak from experience. I went to one of these “progressive” schools for 7 years. It was a complete disaster and I wouldn’t wish that type of schooling on any child.

    1. I can’t really comment on your education but it seems to have prepared you to speak your mind with confidence very well indeed. And it is indeed your choice to choose a school that does have uniform. This is not the norm in Australia and it is good you have exercised a choice based on your beliefs. We don’t have that choice here in the UK. It is not true, however, that most jobs have uniforms. And although we certainly need more police, fire and health workers, it is a fact that most jobs that have uniform are low paid. It is interesting that you and Michael both view this blog as an attack on knowledge rather than a personal reflection as a parent and teacher on the kinds of lies we tell children and how we prepare them not just for work but for life. The Harvard study into happiness came to the conclusion that happiness is inextricably linked to the capacity to form good, strong relationships, to communicate well and to have a sense of purpose in the world. It is my view that these capacities need not to be taught, but to be practiced in education. Not instead of, but in addition to, knowledge.

      1. Seriously, either don’t engage or respond with a real point. That was a clear backslap because he disagrees with you, it is also obviously ridiculous to attribute confidence to his school with so little information. This can develop later in life.

      2. Uniforms are, in almost all instances, compulsory in Aust schools. Parents’ here seem keen to have them and hold on to them. Second hand uniforms are available and the cost is minimal. It would also be fairly minimal in comparison to all the outfits, shoes, etc that they’d wear each day if they didn’t have uniforms.

        Uniforms are conformist in the best possible way. They create an equal playing field (I would think this was very important for people who care about children from underprivileged background) and they give kids a sense of ownership of their school and links with their community. Most kids I know are proud to wear their school uniform.

        I see your post as an attack on knowledge because it seems an attempt to undermine those element of a school system which are more traditional, if you like, such as uniforms and having students listen to a teacher. For instance, there is a reason why, through the decades, teachers have put children’s desks in rows facing the front. That would be because it is less distracting, and prevents children from talking and means they can clearly see/hear the teacher and the black/white board without twisting, heads/necks/bodies, which, by the way, is really terrible for kids who suffer headaches/migraine, as mine do, and as one ophthalmologist told me, causes all sorts of problems for kids with eye problems. Not to mention sitting on floors or in bean bags with ipads, which is really awful for posture.

        Also, I disagree that the skills you believe are so necessary don’t stem naturally from knowledge. One the one hand you claim they are bound up with knowledge then you seem to simultaneously claim that they can be taught outside of knowledge and need to be practised.. So I’m confused.

    1. How about, Michael use “they” as it is non-gender and in this case I know Tempe is female. It would have significantly changed how that response was viewed.

      Also not sure why Tempe is talking about Behaviorism or the bucket theory rogertitcombe. It sounds like she is viewing learning via Cognitive Load Theory which is cognitivisim.

  10. You realise thats the same behavior. I did read your addition earlier where you decided you were now engaging in personal reflections, rather then stating a position, using personal anecdotes as evidence. A simple re–read of your first paragraph will reveal that not to be the case. You are quite entitled to your own polemics just as Greg Ashman is in the opposite direction, just please consider acknowledging that you have an agenda.

  11. It is a putdown as well. It may be lightly humorous, though it is most likely perceived very differently by people who don’t agree with you. Like any stand up comic has learnt, know your audience.

  12. God, some people seem to spend their whole lives trawling blogs to attack, so they can advance their polarised arguments. The uniforms stuff IS irrelevant – not least because an entire continent (North America) seems to manage very well without them. But that was not the point of the post. Nor was it taking sides on knowledge vs skills. (I am so tired of the cognitive load theory being wheeled out, supported only by a 10 year-old study). The level of absolutism displayed in the comments is disappointing, but no longer surprising. Here’s a radical thought: all kids are different. Some learn better one way, others benefit from different approaches. That’s why we need different schools. The overall point – that we generally are not preparing kids for a radically altered future is, to me at least, not hugely contentious. If you believe school is there to help kids achieve a decent level of prosperity later in life then employers are telling us that they’re not getting enough applicants with the skills they need. The evidence is clear that routine cognitive and routine manual jobs (basically, the kinds of jobs you wear a uniform for) are being replaced by automation. The growth is in non-routine manual and cognitive roles. If you believe the purpose of school is to create well-balanced, informed citizens, we’re stressing our kids out, predicting what grades they’ll get aged 18 when they’re 8. If you believe schools are there to support the current generation to protect the planet, there’s hardly any future-facing curricula (I know of a few schools in Australia and the US where sustainability, nanotechnology, environmental studies are part of the curriculum, but they’re a tiny minority).
    People who (rather condescendingly) have taken issue with less central issues to advance their own pet aversions (“I went to a progressive school and hated it, therefore all progressive schools are bad for all kids”) have completely missed the point.

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