Gap Years Succeed Where High Schools Fail

Gap year students find the purpose for learning high school failed to provide.

Posted Feb 25, 2014

In a recent post, I shared that one of the great outcomes of intentional gap years is that they develop in students a sense of purpose for their higher ed and professional careers. Take a look at research we’ve done at Thinking Beyond Borders, the educational non-profit I run, that shows this. Because of this impact, I posit that gap years are a critical intervention to improve learning and growth for college students.

Where has all the purpose gone?

Laurence Steinberg posted on Slate recently about the failure of American high schools. He used research and statistics to make his point that US high schools have not improved in 40 years. What he failed to do was identify why this is the case.

The answer is fairly simple: a lack of meaningful purpose.

In the 1960’s, when US public education was thriving, the purpose for the system was clear: the nation was in pursuit of greatness. President Kennedy ushered in the decade imploring young people to contribute to their country and the world. The space race, a technological revolution, and the Cold War inspired students and teachers in their work.

The fervor of these movements slowed in the mid-70’s, the same time that the statistics Mr. Steinberg cited show achievement in US high schools reaching a plateau. In the decades since, the story has been that we go to college to get a better job and more opportunity. Better than what? Opportunity to do what? More money may drive some, but for most teens, getting rich is so far into the future that it is an abstract and weak motivator.

It would be silly to suggest that the main cause of this failure to improve over 40 years is that students and teachers lost the sense of purpose that inspired their teaching and learning. Shifts in the economy, politics, culture, and the expanding volume of content to be learned have likely all played a role.

But, we should look deeper into the value of purpose. The correlation of the end of these periods of clear national purpose for learning and improvements in high school achievement is inescapable.

How do children succeed?

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed pointed to research suggesting that “character”—a defined set of cognitive and noncognitive traits—is needed for students to persevere in school. He concludes the book by telling his own story of dropping out of Columbia University despite having the “character” he deemed necessary for success in our educational system.

What becomes clear from his personal account is that he dropped out because he didn’t have a sense of purpose. He saw education as a game that he knew how to play; “…and like millions of high-school rebels before me, I was convinced that what I was learning in the classroom didn’t really matter…” Tough eventually becomes a journalist because he took time away from school and found his passion and purpose in telling the stories of the people and places he encountered while travelling. He found value in those stories and thought they would be valuable to others.

Finding purpose in a gap year

Understanding “purpose” isn’t easy. Humans are inherently social beings. While receiving accolades from others is gratifying, humans tend to benefit far more from deeper relationships. We crave interaction, exchange, and kinship. We find these relationships not only in our friends and family, but also in our work, contributing efforts and expertise for the benefit of a cause greater than ourselves. When our learning is rooted in a cause with clear social value, we have a sense of purpose that leaves us resilient and inspired.

Students need to arrive on campus with a sense of what they want to learn and how they will use that knowledge in their professions and citizenship. This doesn’t require students to start college with an unwavering commitment to a major, but they should start with a commitment to their own learning and growth as tools that will serve them well in a society they want to contribute to.

Infusing high schools with curricula and programs that help develop meaningful purpose in students is a great idea. While we’re all waiting for that to happen, the gap year offers a powerful opportunity for students. There is an ever-increasing set of programs designed to develop purpose before starting college. The gap year is the best intervention available to ensure students are ready to take advantage of the incredible learning opportunities universities offer.

About the Author

Robin Pendoley is an educator working at the forefront of the gap year movement in the US. 

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