As a career practitioner, educator and parent to a 17-year-old daughter preparing for life after high school, I understand the complexities of encouraging a gap year. This blog will be one of a 2-part series that will unwrap the benefits, the obstacles and the unspoken subtleties that schools will NEVER tell you about a gap year. I will refer to global research to ensure that I don't speak from my opinion about this topic. It's always important to critically evaluate your opinion with what the research shows to find the right balance and feel confident that you are making the choice that feels right for you.
This week, I want to speak out loud about things I understand about the current education system and the subtleties that students are taught, teachers teach, and institutions pride themselves on. You know, the things we teach our kids but never really use words to teach. You probably learned some of these by hearing about examples of success and failure based on people your role models knew or people they heard of through other people.
To begin, let's throw out that there are two paths that every secondary school student will find themselves at; the path most taken - university and the less taken - any other path. Curtis' (2014) research identified the path most taken as the 'typical pattern' for school leavers. However, just because it's the typical pattern, I wonder if that gives it the right to be the best path. When society tells a student what they 'must do' or 'should do', it's really not about the 'feel right path' but more like the 'fit in with us' path. In the research by Brookfield (2017), he states that the 'should' and 'must' is a hegemonic assumption, which means it's the 'dominant perspective' and the one that 'everyone' must follow.
So, let's fast forward to a typical high school student on the 'go to university' path because that's what everyone 'does' or 'should do.' Well, I think we need to rewind a little. How do we tell students the university path is the 'should'? Easily, we limit their exposure to any other type of information. For example, we only advise them about life after high school as one where a degree is the 'norm.' This is where my opinion will kick in; I remember being a high school student, and grades were the dominant factor in my life's success. That was all the teachers and guidance counsellors talked about…grades and university degrees. Fast forward to today, over 30 years later, and my daughter STILL has the same school experiences.
The problem, though, is that 30 years ago, career guidance was abysmal, and guess what…it still is!! Crazy right! Well, folks, there is where the foundational problems with helping teenagers begin. We are educating our kids to go to university, but we assume they'll figure the rest out afterwards as adults. Crazy if you ask me. Then, we wonder why teenagers are stressed about making career choices. Let's reflect on the historical perspectives of university graduates. For example, historically, there was a distinction between students who studied at universities. For instance, they had an intention for life after graduation; would they teach or gain a professional position?
In case you're wondering what these major developmental milestones are, they are grouped into social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. Truthfully, this is a whole OTHER conversation that we will definitely have when we discuss inclusion, career development and opportunities in a future episode. However, for today's discussion, I want to look further into the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) (2023), which prides itself on being an international organization that builds policies to create a better-prepared world of tomorrow. The OECD (2023) suggested that graduates need practical guidance with rich first-hand encounters with employers. Therefore, let's shoot backwards to my example that in 30 years, the education system is still. This decision would then pre-empt their level of education. Meaning would they pursue advanced degrees or not.
I jumped off on a tangent, so let's get back on the topic. Historically, a university degree promised a graduate higher wages, higher education and societal recognition for students. However, in current times, it is questionable whether this remains the case. For example, the unprecedented labour market has employers criticizing the current education system as lacking the substance to prepare graduates for future employment. A conversation I had with Jaye-Richards Hill from Microsoft in 2022 unwraps how a well-sought-out company by youth globally has a different perspective on education and degrees. You might be listening to this now and saying, "ok, Maria, how does this even help us decide whether a gap year is a good choice?" It's like a window opening up that shakes your current belief system about higher education.
The auto-pilot spoonfed to teens remains that university is the RIGHT and ONLY path if they want to succeed. But, then, social media influencers like Gary Vee criticize the system and invoke a somewhat negative perception of a degree. So, who do we listen to? More importantly, who will YOU listen to? Well, this is where our teens need more information and learn how to dissect the information they know and use it to make an informed choice that feels right for them! It's time to start giving teens information about the most and least travelled path, but we must stop genericizing these lessons. You know what I mean. It's a copy-paste scenario. You know, the one where EVERYONE does this or that? Well, that doesn't even exist! There are so many milestones on the spectrum, yet we still prepare students like there are only two; success with a degree or failure without a degree! Let me put it to you in lamens terms; when was the last time you bought a house without detailing every fine detail, ensuring a high return on investment? Seriously, think about it. We expect teenagers to make the LARGEST decision they will ever make at 17 without giving them the fine details. Researchers Parker et al. (2015) suggested that the transition from high school to university required school leavers to have achieved major developmental milestones, which they are expected to have to begin implementing their career and falling short when giving students career guidance. Furthermore, let's ask out loud if this is the case, are the education system and the world of work aligned with their expectations for young people? If not, most likely not, can a gap year give a student time to reflect, inquire and get informed about the type of life they want to participate in?
I could go on forever on this topic, but it is a 3-part series, so for today, I want to leave you pondering the things we discussed and further consider what is expected of YOU at your life stage. I don't care if you're 14 or 104. The world of work influences you. Does what you perceive the world of work to be aligned with how YOU were prepared for work? What were the subtleties you were taught, and if you have children, what will YOU continue to teach? In case you think that you're not teaching them and that you're the 'woke' parent giving your kids the open road to make their own decisions, remember that unless you are actively unwrapping the subtleties that they are being taught at school, YOU ARE teaching them to take one path over another. Now, would a gap year give them time to self-reflect, develop any missed development milestones and become aware of their intentions for higher education?
That's it for this week. Next week the topic is; the benefits and challenges of taking a Focused Gap Year with Maria Vitoratos, Careers Coach who designs focused gap years!
Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Curtis, D. (2014). The ‘Gap Year’ in Australia: Incidence, Participant Characteristics and Outcomes. Australian Economic Review, 47(1), 107–114. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8462.12054
OECD. (2023.). OECD. https://www.oecd.org/
Parker, P. D., Thoemmes, F., Duineveld, J. J., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). I wish I had (not) taken a gap-year? The psychological and attainment outcomes of different post-school pathways. Developmental Psychology, 51(3), 323–333. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038667