I have a weakness for reality TV.
Not the shows like The Real Housewives or Jersey Shore. I’m talking about the ones where contestants sign up to be on the show in order to win a prize at the end.
Whenever I watch Master Chef, or American Idol, or So You Think You Can Dance, I’m amazed at the level of dedication and preparation that these contestants put into their craft and art. I love to watch these shows because it gets me excited and pumped up to work hard at my own writing – to write daily, to do exercises to help improve my craft and art, and to keep working through obstacles and setbacks.
I started thinking about school this week. It’s kind of hard not to do that with all the back to school commercials, ads, and store signs everywhere. I also started thinking about all the younger kids who are starting school and are probably thinking about all the fun they’ll have and all the new things they will be able to do this next year.
When kids go to school, what are they really signing up for? What should they really expect to get in the end? Should the end result simply be that they get to progress to another grade? So what happens at the end of thirteen years of school?
Is this general high school degree, where students did not have to focus time or effort into creating projects that really matter outside the system, where they did not have to work hundreds of hours at learning new skills, developing talent or creating goals that will directly affect what they want to do in their lives, going to bring them any closer to achieving what they really want to achieve?
No. And even if they attend college for four more years, it probably won’t bring them that much closer either because today it’s all about building a portfolio, showing what you have done, networking with people who can help you, and putting in lots and lots of hours specializing in the work you want to do through self-study, internships and mentorships.
And that’s what reality shows do really well for contestants. They allow them to fast track their careers by hooking them up with people who do the types of things they want to do. They are surrounded by other contestants who push them beyond their current abilities. They learn very quickly new skills and techniques because they are immersed in what they are doing.
So what are three things schools could learn from reality TV?
1. Signing up to do a reality show is a great challenge contestants are taking on voluntarily. No one is forcing them to be part of the show.
This is the key to achieving personal goals. They have to be personal. When school turns into something non-compulsory, when students have a choice when they want to go, how long they want to go, and what they want to specialize in and work on when they’re there, that’s when we’ll see a big difference in the attitudes kids have towards learning and in achieving great things for themselves.
2. The challenges have been set up to teach the contestants useful skills that will help them in the future. There is no “busywork” or any other unnecessary tasks.
In the show Master Chef, each challenge is set up to push the contestants to their limits in a certain area. They have to open a box with ten food items, some of which they may never have even used before, and create something that tastes amazing in under an hour.
It’s exciting to watch because a lot of the times the challenges seem almost impossible. You can even see the fear and panic in the contestants eyes at the beginning. They have been pushed far outside their comfort zones. Yet it’s amazing to see how they throw themselves into the challenge. They use everything they have practiced and done so far to help them and they emerge knowing a lot more than they did in the beginning.
When kids don’t have real challenges – I’m talking about challenges that have personal meaning to them and that force them to progress even higher towards personal goals and dreams – they just don’t care. It may be a painful process in the moment, but those kids who take on regular challenges and that dream up great things for themselves to achieve, they are so much more happy, confident and independent.
Fill in the blank worksheets, writing persuasive, expository or narrative essays just for the sake of writing them, doing research papers on things they just don’t care about, doing mind-numbing math drills without learning these skills for a real project or purpose – these are not real challenges and, in my opinion, are down-right insulting to kids.
3.The prize at the end is something the contestants really care about. It will help them achieve their goals and dreams and help advance their careers.
Contestants willingly sign up to push themselves like they’ve never pushed themselves before because the prize is great. Even those contestants who don’t receive the final prize in the end know they will receive so many opportunities just by being a part of the show.
What do kids get out of just being a part of the school system? What is it giving them that makes them want to keep working hard at something?
Contestants are usually only a part of a show for about six months. They work like crazy for six months but there is a big payoff at the end. An eight-year old might be asked to work like crazy for six months but what is her big pay-off at the end? Moving on to 4th grade? A pizza party at the end of the year?
I’m not trying to be sarcastic here, but when we ask kids to do things that don’t really relate to a current interest, project, dream or goal- when we tell them the real payoff will be when they graduate high school (and even that’s not really true) – that doesn’t given them any incentive to work hard at something now. That is just too far off for most kids.
Give kids something to work towards that matter to them now, something they can achieve in the very near future, and watch how much they rise to the occasion.
So what if school could be set up more like reality TV shows?
What if kids could go to a place where they work on projects of their own choice? What if they could work daily with teachers who are actually working professionals – real writers, scientists, historians, film makers, chefs, mathematicians, theater directors, or graphic designers?
What if they could walk away after a year of school and have something real and tangible that they achieved? Maybe they could have made a big difference in solving a community problem. Maybe they could have created a significant piece of art that was showcased professionally. Maybe they worked one on one with a scientist. Maybe they set up a successful blog and encouraged hundreds of readers.
Maybe they learned that working towards your own dreams and goals is something everyone can do – not just those few who can become the next American Idol.
Photo Credit: eviltomthai