The Art of Backward Design & Raising Adults

img_0600Sometimes, it helps to focus on what you’re shooting for.

Perhaps nowhere is that a more apt assertion than when it comes to working with teenagers. The easiest answers are, of course, that we want them to graduate. As our day-to-day work as parents and educators nears its end, it’s fair to say we want some certainty that these kids of ours are going to be okay. We search for signals that we’ve given the burgeoning adults all around us all of the tools they’ll need to be safe, happy, and productive.

And in that search it’s tempting to want to lock down the outcomes. The coursework. The GPA. The college. The major. The profession. The career.

It’s a strategy. But it ignores so much that is beyond our control. We can’t predict what challenges and opportunities will stretch out in front of our kids. We don’t know what choices they’ll face. While we hope the world brings them nothing but sunshine we can’t pretend it won’t ever rain.

So what’s a committed educator, much less a worried parent, to do?

Recently one of our teachers shared a link that speaks to another approach–one that resonates deeply with us because it focuses on equipping young adults for whatever the journey brings them. Take a look at the eight skills that former Stanford University Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims says every 18 year-old should have:

  • The ability to talk to strangers.
  • The ability to navigate an unfamiliar place.
  • The ability to use and manage a calendar.
  • The ability to keep house.
  • The ability to deal with interpersonal challenges.
  • The ability to handle disappointment and burden.
  • The ability to hold a job and manage money.
  • The ability to take constructive risks.

In her 2015 book How to Raise an Adult, Lythcott-Haims makes the case for stepping back as a way, not of letting go of our children, but of giving them a hand up as they prepare to move out into the world. The list above is pretty basic. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a cogent case against expecting young adults to chase it in its entirety. And yet, it’s one thing to say we want our kids to have the skills. It’s another to embrace the trial and error and the inevitable mistakes that come with practicing and eventually mastering these skills.

While the path looks different for every student, the way forward for each of them contains ruts and rocks. Our commitment as educators is not to sweep the way clear, but to promise that we’ll point out the hazards, offer help navigating around them, and help the kids up when they fall. It might be a far quicker and less worrisome trip if you (and we) just smoothed the road, but then we’d never have any confidence the kids could travel without us.

Joy and I remind ourselves often to thank parents for the support you offer us as we work hard to give your kids a safe environment in which to take those first tentative steps toward adulthood. We cringe and wince at the mistakes too, but we honor the hard work our students are doing, even in the midst of their missteps, to find their way to lives of responsibility, integrity, and commitment.

After all, isn’t that really what we’re all shooting for?

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