On average, six out of every 100 students drop out of their university course. In the last five years, two thirds of universities and colleges have seen a five percent increase in the proportion of students dropping out.
On one hand these rates are not surprising. The neocortex, the thinking part of the brain is not finished until we are in our early to mid-twenties. We start asking young people what they want to do when they grow up from about ten years old. As soon as they need to choose subjects the pressure starts to build. All when those making the decisions don’t really have the neurological equipment to make them nor are they old enough to really know who they are, what their natural attributes might be or what they might enjoy.
Of course, parents and teachers try to help but these role models are often influenced by their own path and hopes for that child. Unfortunately, we don’t really know what we are suited to or might enjoy until we experience it. That’s just part of the learning process. We don’t know what we don’t know.
The decision regarding ongoing education or work
Often, young people, regardless of suitability, are herded toward further or higher education because of a lack of viable alternatives in the local community. And let’s be honest, far too many courses offer almost zero possibility of leading to improved job prospects. What is the point of creating interesting or sexy courses that may appeal to applicants but serve no purpose for employers or offer any relevant end-game?
Then there is the FE or university experience itself. For many young people the experience is almost magical. A sense of freedom and spreading their wings, making new friends and immersing themselves in an interesting course is fun. But this is by no means true for all. Some students hate it. Some struggle intellectually, others socially and more still financially.
The need for skill development
What’s needed is the development of a new skill set that will help all young people whether they leave and find work or go on to further or higher education. Skills that we could all do with improving, regardless of our age.
What we need to foster is not necessarily exam preparedness or an ability to learn and retain information but rather we need to give our kids a PARSEL:
- Problem-solving skills,
- Emotional self-management and
- Learned optimism.
Too many of us, including young people, believe the quality of their lives depends on the events and situations that occur in that life. We operate from an outside in mentality. If good things are going on outside of us, we feel good. If bad things are going on outside of us, we feel bad.
Yet neuroscience and the study of positive psychology have shown that it is not what happens to us that determines the quality of our life but what we make those things mean. Hence the need for PARSEL.
The fear of the wrong choice
Making the wrong choice of course is not terminal. Making sure that young people know this is critical. If the course they choose is not what they imagined, or they don’t enjoy it, is there the possibility to move to another course? Is it the course or is it something else? Learning to lean into the discomfort to gain some insight and learning is something we would all benefit from. There are always options. Everything worthwhile requires effort, so adaptability and resilience are always needed but so is a little dash of common sense.
An enthusiastic audience member once told the violinist Itzhak Perlman he’d give his life to play as well as Perlman. Perlman replied, “I did.” Perlman would never have been able to get that good unless he had some sort of natural affinity to the violin or he was naturally interested. Remember the famous 10,000 hours theory where it’s thought that it’s only possible to become brilliant at anything after at least 10,000 hours of practice. It is impossible to get to 10,000 hours without some level of interest or affinity to that study. Without it there will always be a plausible reason to quit or do something else.
The need for self-awareness
Young people, like the rest of us, could benefit from greater self-awareness. What is it about the course they chose that they love, what do they hate? Why? Encouraging young people to engage with their situation, and tease apart the elements they enjoy and the elements they don’t, can give them important insight into the type of environment they will naturally enjoy or gravitate to. Understanding their learning style is also beneficial.
Most of us don’t know this stuff. We don’t recognize the component parts of how we feel. Very few experiences are all good or all bad. Stopping to consider the silver linings or the little insights or learnings can help us refine our choices as we travel through life. Too often we throw the baby out with the bath water. Dropping out of a course is the youthful equivalent of that!
In order to increase retention, we must help young people to understand who they are, and why they think, behave and react in the ways they do. They need to make sense of themselves, their environments to find purpose and meaning in order to want to adapt and ultimately thrive. They also need to come to realise, as we all do that life really is an inside out experience.
Learning to handle a new environment
How we feel makes a huge difference to what we think about and how we behave. In FE and higher education young people are thrust into a new environment, it can feel scary and daunting. Meeting new people, making new friends, not to mention the workload. And yet modern parenting has often not helped to prepare young people for this change.
Simon Sinek talks about this in his presentation on millennials in the workplace. The parents of millennials wanted to do it differently. They wanted to move away from the traditional parenting of their upbringing and be more engaged and encouraging. Sounds good – right? But in reality, they have simply fallen into a different trap.
In an effort to encourage, support, and be more engaged millennial children have been repeatedly told how special they were. They were told they could have anything they want in life, just by wanting it. In school, if they didn’t get into the class they wanted, their parents would make such a fuss they did get in. They often got better grades than they should have for the same reason. They never really learned how to solve their own problems because their parents stepped in to do it for them. They got participation medals on sports day, even when they came last.
Effort, Persistence and Determination
So why are there record levels of depression in young people?
Because that approach doesn’t work either. It sets up false and unrealistic expectations of who we are and what we need to do in order to be successful and happy. And it actively devalues the thing that does matter – effort. When a child grows up thinking they’re special, when all their problems are removed for them, too often they arrive in young adulthood woefully unprepared for the challenges of further education and university or indeed adult life.
And it can be crushing. The parent’s efforts in making sure that their child knows how special they are robs them of the very thing that makes people genuinely special: effort. We need to foster personal problem solving and resilience so that when they are knocked down, they get back up and try again. As US President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Rewarding effort, persistence, and determination is much more useful and healthier for parent and child. As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to prepare children and young people for the world. Nothing does that better than effort. Praising a child for the effort they put into studying, for example, encourages them to challenge themselves and not just expect good results because they’re “special” or “clever”. Effort is what delivers results in life, regardless of natural ability, talent, education, or connections.
Encourage effort, experimentation and help young people to pursue what interests them. Encourage them to see things through instead of giving up at the first hurdle. Work out what parts of a course they don’t like, is there a side-ways shift that would fit their interest and ignite that effort?
And lastly, we need to understand much more about optimism. None of us are always optimistic or always pessimistic. It’s not down to gene or circumstance. Optimism can be learned. And it can make a profound difference to how we feel which can then positively influence how we think and what we do.
Genuine optimism and high self-esteem aren’t about teaching your child to feel special or happy all the time. It’s about equipping them to deal with the inevitable problems, ups and downs of life so they feel ready for whatever life throws at them.
It was Martin Seligman who really helped us to understand optimism properly and unpack its component parts. First, we operate within a range and we have far more control over that range than we have been led to believe.
Seligman refers to this capability as our explanatory style, and there are three parts to it:
- Pervasiveness, and
If something unwelcome happens a pessimist will automatically assume that the situation is permanent, it will automatically infect all other areas of their life and that it’s because of some personal flaw or failing.
An optimist will instinctively do the opposite. They see the situation as transitory, confined to one area and outside of their control. We can teach young people to be more optimistic – see events as simply stuff that will pass, recognize that a poor exam is just a poor exam and doesn’t mean the end of the world, a friendship or a precursor for something worse.
Sometimes stuff just happens, but again action and effort are the greatest antidote. This is not to avoid responsibility but rather to foster resilience and fortitude in the face of challenges.
We need to teach our young people to challenge pessimistic thoughts and assess them logically:
- Is this permanent?
- Is this going to impact every area of their life?
- Has this happened because of a personal failing?
- If so, how do they fix it?
We need to give them tools to objectively analyze the problems they face and choose a more constructive mindset so they can solve that effectively – themselves.
That’s what builds genuine self-esteem – a personal demonstration that they can find a way, work out their problems and deal with the ups and downs of their lives. Not empty platitude about how wonderful and special they are.
I believe that the retention issue is the same issue as absenteeism and disengagement in the workplace. It is the same issue that is often at the heart of failed relationships and friendships. We are simply not encouraged to understand ourselves enough, recognize our strengths and weaknesses, work with the strengths and recognize that no life is without challenge. That is why we’ve created the FUEL programme – to help students of all ages to get a better sense of their ‘inside’ so they can better manage and navigate their outside.
By helping young people to gain self-knowledge and resilience we’ll find that retention in education will improve and students’ lives and employment prospects will be enhanced.
Sid Madge is founder of Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise)
Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise), draws on the best creativity and thinking from the worlds of branding, psychology, neuroscience, education and sociology, to help people achieve extraordinary lives. To date, Meee has transformed the lives of over 20,000 people, from leaders of PLC’s and SME’s to parents, teachers, students, carers, the unemployed and prison inmates. Sid Madge is also author of the ‘Meee in Minute’ series of books which each offer 60 ways to change your life, work-, or family-life in 60 seconds.