What You Shouldn’t Learn from School

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Picking school as a model for adult working life is a serious but common error. The trouble is the large number of ‘givens’ of student life that are actually toxic to a quality adult life.

The Semester System

I don’t know any adults living by the following annual calendar: start four to six new jobs with new bosses, put in about 10 hours per week on each of the jobs. Spend almost 100% of the time coming up to speed on the work, then just as you get your first performance review which says you’re doing well (the closest thing to a report card for adults is the on-the-job ‘performance review’), quit all those jobs. Go on a short vacation, then start four to six new and different jobs with new bosses. Once again, spend nearly all your time just coming up to speed on these jobs. When you get your ‘performance review’, quit all your jobs again and go on vacation.

For anyone in middle school through college, this pattern (except for the strange vocabulary) can be recognized immediately as the semester system. For anyone in the world of work, this is a recipe for incredible levels of stress. Most adults have one, maybe two jobs at any given moment. They keep them (hopefully) for many years. The first few months in a new job are expected to be stressful because of the ‘coming up to speed’ process. Once that’s accomplished, stress drops and a rhythm develops that allows work life to become routine and maybe even somewhat relaxing. If you’re a student living under the semester system, you might not realize or expect this ‘settling in’ process since it never happens to you.

Cheating or Collaborating?

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Because of the need to give grades, helping other students is, as a student, against the rules. Because of the need to get actual work done, as an adult, helping other people is essential. Adults spend far more time collaborating than working alone. In my experience, academic ‘group projects’ are poor models of adult collaboration from a number of perspectives. First, ‘management’ of groups by the instructor is usually hopelessly hands-off. I will say that adult teamwork is becoming more peer-to-peer and less dependent on management from the top. However adults are, on average, a lot more dependable about doing their fair share in a project, whereas student groups tend to separate into two populations. Some students are anxious enough to do the whole project themselves lest the other, less-motivated group members pull down their grade.

Cheating does exist after graduation. Adult work-groups do occasionally degenerate into school-style workhorse-and-free-rider dynamics, but more often the dysfunction is more subtle. Among the most galling misbehavior in adult group work is ‘blamestorming’, which means allocating blame for failed work on other members of the group. The opposite of blamestorming is stealing credit, which is legitimate when managers are credited for their teams’ work. However, peers stealing credit from other peers is always unacceptable, yet frequent. Learning to document your work and advertise your value to the people who determine your pay grade is an essential skill rarely mentioned in school.

The Five O’Clock Whistle is Broken

Sometimes I wonder whether the homework we adults endured as children led us to the Blackberry-infested, always-on workplace we inhabit today. As common as it is, I don’t believe that a day filled with work from dawn to well past dusk admits for even a basic level of quality of life. But if you’re in school and you’re going to class from 7:30 to 3, going home and piling on several more hours of homework, with more homework stuffed into the weekend, exactly where do you schedule rest, recovery, reflection, social life, and just plain loafing? Is it any wonder that adults now find it acceptable to take conference calls from work on their Blackberries at any hour of the night and sit in bed with their laptops, cranking away at spreadsheets into the early hours of the morning?

Here is a case where school is an accurate model for adult life, but only because adult life is broken, not because school is doing it right. My fear is that, by normalizing work without boundaries in school-age children, we’re setting the next generation up for another cycle of 10-, 12- or 16-hour days where they accomplish little because they are dead on their feet. And rather than recognize this condition, they feel compelled to continue because “everyone else is doing it.” I can assure you that “everyone else” is not doing it. I worked for a manager who took away monitor cables from their workers’ PCs rather than let them stay late. Meanwhile, employees often have more power than they know to determine how long and how often they work. Others, meanwhile, are not waiting for permission and are becoming self-employed in order to balance work and the rest of their lives.

To be a good student, all that’s necessary is to absorb all you can from school. But to live a great life, it’s important to notice some of the assumptions built into the academic life and determine which ones are worth adopting and which ones should be put aside with the cap and gown.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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