Multiplicity and Career Readiness in High School

There is a big push for career readiness at my high school. Students are encouraged to align themselves with a career track (or pathway) then gain experience in their chosen field through internships. For many, this is a wise and practical approach to their academics and will give them a leg up when they begin their undergraduate programs. For some, however, choosing a vocation at 15 years old is premature, which is backed up by current developmental research.

Had I been encouraged to choose a pathway in high school I would have chosen the medical field, as I was sure I wanted to go into sports medicine. I doubt that I even knew what that meant at the time. I just knew I liked sports and found that I was good at wrapping my fellow teammates’ ankles. I even entered college with the major declared: sports medicine. It didn’t take long to realise that I was not great at science and had no interest in biology. I switched my major to art after a friend’s mother told me I’d be good at it. (shout out to Mrs. Romanski) I had never taken an art class in high school.

My sons have been asked what they want to be when they grow up since they were old enough to answer. At various points they’ve chosen a firefighter, artist, scientist, and soccer player. They chose these options because it was what they were exposed to at the time. Had they known about the option of Geospatial Information Scientist and Technologist, perhaps they would have chosen that. While students at the high school level are exposed to many more options than my young elementary aged sons, the same rule still applies to them. Their interest is limited to the fields they’ve been exposed to. Some seek out exposure on their own, while others rely on their teachers, parents and community members to guide them. I find it frustrating that, as educators, we aren’t doing enough to encourage our students to dabble, to experience, and try out options to help find the best fit at this young developmental age.

I have sat in many meetings where discussions of pathways and internships come up. I have felt very alone in my questioning the accepted approach and have wondered if it was just me. Maybe I was focusing too much on my own high school experience and not seeing the bigger picture of what my students need. After all, when I asked who among a group of my colleagues knew they wanted to be teachers when they were in high school, all hands around the meeting table went up.

My instincts about this topic, however, continue to push me to research the best ways to improve college and career readiness. I’ve come across the work of Emilie Wapnick, who encourages people who identify as “multipotentialite” to understand the positive aspects of feeling drawn to more than one area of study. She discusses this topic in her TED talk found here.

Wapnick states, “The dominant story around career and calling tells us that skill is what’s valuable in the marketplace and that we should therefore hone a skill over and over again in exchange for a paycheck.” She goes on, “Skill is where the conversation usually ends. But I would argue that there are certain qualities more valuable than being “really good” at something.

Multipotentialites have a number of often underestimated superpowers that go beyond skill. These qualities are the reason that so many innovators throughout history happen to have been oriented toward multiple disciplines. They predispose us to innovation.”

She describes these qualities here.

The argument will surely go that, to be successful in college, one must choose a major and stick with it. To some extent this is true. However, there is far more flexibility in most college programs than we let on. In my program alone, I was interested in both graphic design and theatre scenic studies. I was encouraged to dictate the terms of my own program requirements to suit my interests at that time. When I graduated, I had a degree in art and experience in both graphic design and theatre studies. I wasn’t the exception. This was happening all around me. It took very little effort on my part, just a desire to be involved in more than one major.

And what about after college? One must have a lot of experience in their one chosen field in order to get a job and make their way up the ladder of success. Sure, that’s definitely the case. Only when it isn’t fully…

Sarabeth Berk, a former classmate of mine and someone who is doing innovative work in the various fields she puts her energy into, states that having multiple professional identities is often what makes a person successful. She shares, "A person whose multiple professional identities overlap and combine to create entirely new identities. Working from the spaces in-between, a hybrid professional is more than one title. The trick is figuring out how to articulate and express one’s hybridity so the rest of the world knows what you do and sees how unique your professional skill set really is. Hybridity is a differentiator in the workforce.”

View her TED talk here.

I have high doubts that the people involved in decision making in my school are reading this, but if they are, I hope that encouraging the art of being a renaissance person is given a bit more priority. Not every high-schooler knows what they want yet and there is real danger in expecting and encouraging them to narrow their focus at this early stage of development. Let’s try to encourage dabbling, exploring, and identifying with more than one…at all stages of life.

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