Mon | Jan 18, 2021

Kristen Gyles | The most unnecessary classroom question

Published:Friday | November 15, 2019 | 12:00 AM

As early as a child begins to put meaning to words, we start badgering them with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A child at age 10 is blissfully unaware of the differences between the work of an engineer versus that of an architect. So why do they need to be bothered by this question? The evolution of career choice for the average child usually starts with them wanting to be a doctor or fireman or provider of some essential service. By age 21, the individual is annoyed with school and swears they will become a full-time YouTuber.

In fact, many adolescents face overwhelming amounts of stress trying to answer this question, and oftentimes feel pressured into making a hurried decision by third or fourth form when they are to choose their Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects. The problem with this ‘one size fits all’ timeline is that not every student is ready at this point to make a determination about what professional line they wish to take. And why should they have to?

The term ‘jack of all trades’ is generally used disparagingly, since most persons have bought into the idea that we each must have our own area of ‘speciality’, and we each must somehow be the best at something. Interestingly, it is the ‘jacks of all trades’ who tend to do best in dynamic work environments, where people are challenged to adapt to a wide cross-section of circumstances, people and tasks.

There is no recognition of this at all in schools, where students are forced to choose their CSEC and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) subjects in ‘pools’ of either the arts, the sciences, or business. At the same time, we encourage students to get involved in co-curricular activities of varied sorts in a bid to get them to become more rounded. There’s no wonder as to why our students are so confused.


Let’s face it, not every student will have a burning desire to become an engineer or a medical doctor. Some students have such unique and untraditional passions that they will have to create their own platforms for employment or livelihood. There is just no conventional line of work that they will find appealing.

Other students have spent their whole academic lives juggling multiple interests. This is not something we should frown upon, since it is typically the ‘multipotentialites’ of our society who become the trailblazers of new and exciting entrepreneurial and social ventures that reform the inefficiencies in how we function.

We grow our students to be so unidimensional in their thinking, and then we question why they are unable to adapt to changing circumstances in the workplace and in life, generally.

We need to get out of this mode of thinking where a child is either good at the sciences or good at the arts, but never both. A student may make a good lawyer, maybe a good teacher, but certainly not both. They must ‘focus’. It is hard to understand why this idea has taken root in the minds of so many people when we have so many examples of successful, multitalented public figures, like the comedic gynaecologist, the lawyering talk-show host, and the athlete-turned-politician.

Is there any harm to pressuring a child with this question too early, though? Copious numbers of students start university pursuing a course of study that they never complete. In fact, The Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, a US representative study of about 25,000 students who enrolled in post-secondary education for the first time in the 2011–12 academic year, reported that 33 per cent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees changed their majors at least once throughout their studies.

The truth is, by the ending of their first or second year in university, many students find that they have little to no interest in the career path they’ve started on.

If we simply see education as a route to a good job, then that is the idea we will sell to our young people. And, of course, when they discover alternative routes to good jobs (which exist), they will be more than happy to turn their backs on the otherwise useless school system.

We need to start looking at education as more of a holistic development tool rather than simply the journey into a definitive profession. Once we get our students to adopt this outlook on education, we will see tremendous difference in the value they place on learning.

Kristen Gyles is an educator. Email feedback to