(un)Guided Transitions: Why our students are unprepared

The complaint that high schools poorly prepare students for university rings frequently in the halls each fall, with students perhaps knowing the content and having gotten A’s seem unable to read a syllabus, to complete readings, take notes and engage in classrooms appropriately. Scoffed at in comparison is the equivalent complaint that our graduates enter workplaces perhaps knowing the terms and theories and having gotten at least B’s seem unable to attend meetings, prepare relevant documents, engage in workplace meetings and with clients appropriately.

What’s going on? The content knowledge and skills are there. Initiative and being “good”, however looks profoundly different as the expectations and norms shift.

To be a good student in high school, one must be within appropriate pace within the class working with and completing the tasks assigned by the (flexible perhaps) deadline, participation in class is to say relatively little and to be a team player among peers.

To succeed in university is more individualistic in many courses, to exceed in the pace of reading and learning, to speak when opportunity exists, to demonstrate one’s keenness within social norms that privilege quick and connection-laden answers. Even something seemingly tangible like expectations for good essays and sufficient citations are different.

To succeed in the workplace is to place group before self, yet leverage group interactions to show one’s capability as a team player. To paradoxically either shine to be mundane: To excel when in the appropriate seat or with supervisor-identified problems, and to blend in when seen as one of many workers. Unique edges or common middle that must be in sync. To seek to be unique in the middle is perceived as discordant and outside one’s role.

So the transition path from guided growth to individualistic intelligence to context-attuned shining mundaneness, speaks to an unspoken set of norms and cultures that our students are ill-informed and prepared for.

At the crux is that to develop to succeed at one game leads to ill-success at the next game. To be dutiful in waiting for the teacher succeeds in high school but fails in university. To predict where the teacher is going fails in high school but succeeds in university. To be able to work in teams but privilege individual growth succeeds in university but fails in many workplaces. To blend in allows for comfortable success in workplaces but risks potential lost opportunity in university, particularly where accessing graduate degrees or reference letters matter.

How do we already strive to scaffold this transition of expectations and norms? What do we already explain, and what remains hidden and without words? What strategies, examples, cases, rubrics, senior peer mentors, informational interviews and more do you use?