Filling the Education Void: Gap Years Take on A Critical Role

Students meet with a Monk in Thailand to hear him discuss his philosophy on education.

As we begin the new decade, it seems like a good time to pause and reflect on the past decade’s trends in education.  What are we doing as a society to prepare students to live meaningful lives?  Are we equipping students to become responsible, caring and active citizens?  Will they be ready to face novel challenges, unique to their generation?

Recently released results from PISA (Program for International Student Achievement), a commonly used assessment to measure national education statistics across the world, showed that the US has continued to drop in international education rankings.  One statistic within this testing stands out however: only 14% of American 15 year olds who were tested could distinguish between fact and opinion.

Why is this significant?

People rely on sources on the internet to access and consume information with ever increasing frequency.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this trend.  There is in fact a great deal of potential from this wave of new information at our fingertips.  But the internet has also changed what it means to publish information, as practically anyone with a smart phone and internet access can now share content with a large audience around the world, whether that content is fact or opinion, and do so largely without vetting, censorship, qualifications or expertise of any kind.  So discerning factual information from fictional information and opinion becomes exponentially more important in this new environment as we seek something which has become more and more difficult to define: truth.  And we can see how this issue is already shaping today’s political climate.  The concept of fake news and the presence of multiple, contradictory worlds of information have created a maze which is challenging for anyone navigate.

In this new, complex environment, an individual’s ability to think critically and question the deluge of information we absorb everyday comes into play with greater significance than ever before.  While “critical thinking” is not a new term within educational lingo or design, the statistic from the PISA assessment suggests that in the United States, we are not doing enough to encourage our students to engage in these practices.  And to be clear, the goal here is not to score better on a test.  It’s precisely that line of standardized test driven education that may have gotten us to the predicament we are in today, as an educational system which is overly focused on test prep may not allow as much opportunity to think critically.  Instead, we need students who have the ability to ask meaningful questions which are relevant to their lives outside the classroom.  These students will not only be better prepared to become active participants within our society, but also better equipped to navigate the ever-changing environments around them so they can make up their own minds about the world.

Where can students develop these capacities?

Students connect their experiences abroad to issues back home, integrating their gap years into a holistic education.

A gap year represents one such opportunity to encourage critical thinking and questioning by providing students with a bridge from the classroom to a diversity of learning opportunities out in the real world.  At Thinking Beyond Borders, our curricular units and cultural immersion opportunities are designed to guide students through the process of questioning the world around them and their roles within it simultaneously.  Our students explore incredibly complex, global issues which require the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and biases.  They travel abroad and connect with people in different corners of the earth to better understand the roles which culture and identity can play in shaping our individual world-views.  We see many concrete benefits of taking a gap year once students reach college, such as higher GPA’s and a better chance of graduating on time.  But these less tangible abilities of critical thinking and questioning will undoubtedly play more crucial roles within a student’s personal development, studies and career for years to come.