High School Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Let me share with you quotes from a recent op-ed piece in the NYT titled: Why High School Doesn’t have to be Boring

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/30/opinion/sunday/fix-high-school-education.html):

MOST HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS FIND HIGH SCHOOL BORING–>

When you ask American teenagers to pick a single word to describe how they feel in school, the most common choice is “bored.”

WHAT WE OBSERVED IN HIGH SCHOOLS THAT WERE CONSIDERED INNOVATIVE–>

We traveled from coast to coast to visit 30 public high schools that had been recommended by leaders in the field. What we saw, however, was disheartening. Boredom was pervasive. Students filled out worksheets, answered factual questions, constructed formulaic paragraphs, followed algorithms and conducted “experiments” for which the results were already known. Covering content almost always won out over deeper inquiry — the Crusades got a week; the Cold War, two days. In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged; in honors courses, students scrambled for grades at the expense of intellectual curiosity. Across the different class types, when we asked students to explain the purpose of what they were doing, their most common responses were “I dunno” and “I guess it’ll help me in college.”
WHERE WE FOUND POWERFUL LEARNING
As we spent more time in schools, however, we noticed that powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs and extracurriculars. As different as these spaces were, we found they shared some essential qualities. Instead of feeling like training grounds or holding pens, they felt like design studios or research laboratories: lively, productive places where teachers and students engaged together in consequential work.
ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF POWERFUL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
  • STUDENTS WERE PRODUCING SOMETHING OF REAL VALUE:  Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value.
  • COACHING REPLACED “PROFESSING.“Coaching replaced “professing” as the dominant mode of teaching. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the play demanded (Drama Program)
  • STUDENTS FOUND THEIR OWN VOICE:  Debate gave students a chance to speak in their own voices on issues that mattered to them. (Debate Team)

THE TWO LOGICS OF SCHOOLING

Logic #1: Before the Final Bell

Before the final bell, we treat students as passive recipients of knowledge whose interests and identities matter little.

Logic #2: After the Final Bell

After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater, athletics and more — we treat students as people who learn by doing, people who can teach as well as learn, and people whose passions and ideas are worth cultivating. It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways.

LOGIC #2 IN THE CORE SUBJECTS

Rather than touring students through the textbook, teachers invited students to participate in the authentic work of the field. For example, a skillful science teacher in a high-poverty-district high school offered a course in which her students designed, researched, carried out and wrote up original experiments. 

INSTITUTIONAL SCHOOLING IS A GAME THAT STUDENTS AND TEACHERS DO NOT WANT TO PLAY

Why are classrooms like that one so rare? It’s not the teachers’ fault. The default mode of the classrooms we observed reflects the mold in which public high schools were cast a century ago. Students are batch-processed, sorted into tracks based on perceived ability and awarded credits based on seat time rather than actual learning. Making matters worse are college admissions pressures, state testing, curriculum frameworks that emphasize breadth over depth, simplistic systems of teacher evaluation, large classes, large teacher loads and short class periods. The result is that it often feels as though teachers and students have been conscripted into a game that nobody wants to be playing.

HOW CAN HIGH SCHOOLS BECOME MORE INTERESTING?

  1. REAL WORLD LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: Schools need to become much more deeply attached to the world beyond their walls. Extracurriculars gain much of their power from their connections to their associated professional domains. School subjects, in comparison, feel devoid of context
  2. TEACHERS NEED MORE FREEDOM: Teachers need both more freedom and more support.
  3. TEACHERS NEED IMPROVED WORK SPACES: They need longer class periods, opportunities for collaboration and teaching loads small enough to allow them to form real relationships with students.
  4. DEPTH OVER BREADTH: They need expectations for topic coverage that permit more opportunities for depth.
  5. FOCUS ON INNOVATION INSTEAD OF COMPLIANCE: They need districts that focus less on compliance and more on helping teachers learn in rich ways that parallel how those teachers might teach their students.
  6. FOCUS ON EDUCATIONAL VALUES WRITTEN INTO SCHOOL MISSION STATEMENTS: Teachers need parents who ask, “What is my child curious about?” rather than “How did she do on the test?”
  7. STUDENTS NEED TO BE GRANTED MORE FREEDOM OF CHOICE: Most important of all, high school students need to be granted much more agency, responsibility and choice. 

A RADICAL RECOMMENDATION FOR SCHOOL REFORM

More radically, what was powerful about extracurriculars is that students were supported in leading their learning. They were taking responsibility for teaching others and gradually becoming the ones who upheld the standards of the field. The more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be.

 

 

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