The Best Two Questions to Ask as We Develop Students

In February, I led a workshop at the National “First Year Experience” conference in Dallas. Several university staff spoke to me afterward about how difficult student development has become with college freshmen. One advisor said she was viewed as a “mean and nasty” person because she suggested first-year students needed to improve their people skills or study skills.

According to an analysis by Patricia Greenfield at UCLA, life skills such as critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and perseverance have declined with the prevalence of technology at our fingertips. As technology expands, our fundamental skills tend to diminish. “Reading for pleasure, which has declined among young people in recent decades, enhances thinking and engages the imagination in a way that visual media such as video games and television do not,” Greenfield said.

How much should schools use new media versus older techniques, such as reading and classroom discussion? “No one medium is good for everything,” Greenfield said. “If we want to develop a variety of skills, we need a balanced media diet. Each medium has costs and benefits in terms of what skills each develops.”

A Diagnosis

Consider the evolution of our culture. Do you know why belonging to a gym or a fitness center wasn’t popular a century ago? The majority of Americans didn’t need one. They were active bailing hay, working on a farm, or working in factories, where they stood all day and remained active. Fitness centers were unnecessary because physical fitness occurred naturally in their daily lives. Gyms became necessary as our lives became more sedentary. It just makes sense.

The same is true for our emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual growth as well. As technology, social media, and medications expand, we find ourselves needing to create new avenues to develop mature, well-adjusted students who are ready to graduate and take their place as contributing citizens. In my new book Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, I offer a diagram that illustrates how kids today are growing up in a world that hinders them from maturing holistically. I call it the Generation iY SCENE. This is the scene kids are growing up in today, as well as the unintended consequences we didn’t see coming:

Their World is Full of: Consequently, They Can Assume:
S – Speed Slow is bad.
C – Convenience Hard is bad.
E – Entertainment Boring is bad.
N – Nurture Risk is bad.
E – Entitlement Labor is bad.

Note the list on the right. It seems to me that the ideas of slow, hard, boring, risk and labor are the very realities that enable me to mature into a good man, a good leader, a good husband and father. I am suggesting that our world of speed and convenience actually hinder the natural development of virtues we need to develop into strong adults. When things come quick and easy, I fail to develop the emotional muscles I need and require intentional exercises to fully mature.

I remember exactly when and where I learned the life skill of conflict resolution. I learned it playing outside with a dozen or so friends in a big field in back of our house. After we did our homework, we’d grab our baseball bats and mitts and play ball. We’d choose sides and umpire our own games. In the process, I learned interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

I often joke that today kids get less and less time outside to do such things. When they do, there are often four mothers outside doing the conflict resolution for them.

The Formula

The fact is, we must become more intentional about student development in certain areas, especially as fewer life skills are cultivated naturally. In short:

The less natural life skills are cultivated during childhood, the more intentional we must be as we lead them in adolescence and young adulthood.

 A Prescription

So—before we know what to prescribe for student development today, we must ask two simple but profound questions as we observe them:

 What social or emotional muscles seem to be weak?

What practices can we introduce into their lives to develop those muscles?

 Just like a Fitness Center enables us to develop physical muscles, specific social and emotional activities enable us to grow internally. At the risk of over-simplifying:

  • It is in waiting that I build patience.
  • It is in face-to-face collaboration that I build interpersonal skills.
  • It is in attempting risky ventures that I build courage.
  • It is in struggling that I build perseverance.
  • It is in boredom that I have margins to imagine and think creatively.
  • It is in challenging labor that I build appreciation for work ethic.

Here’s to asking these questions as you plan programming for your students.

The Best Two Questions to Ask as We Develop Students