Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Different Kind of High School



I'm not the first to note that the structure of high schools is pretty much what it has been for the past hundred years.  Sure, we tweak class lengths, elective offerings and numbers of classes but not much else changes. Yet we've learned a good deal more about how students learn and what makes them successful, almost none of which we've applied to the way we do things.

Here are some of the things we know now that we didn't know 100 years ago:
  • Humans learn best when immersed in the subject they're studying.  Everyone knows we learn languages better that way. But deep, sustained attention is necessary for creativity, problem-solving, invention and other meaningful learning also. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls this experience Flow.
  • Shorter school days with more study and homework responsibility yield the best results internationally, according to international test comparisons.
  • Behavior problems are multiplied when students are grouped by age and minimized when ages are mixed in a learning environment.
  • Expecting all students to complete high school in exactly four years frustrates both those who need less time and those who need more.
There's nothing harder in a school system than truly implementing radical changes. Nearly everyone will have their feet on the brakes as you try to inch forward. There are hundreds of reasons why nothing should change, just ask your opponents.

But if you want to create a different kind of high school, one where learning and what we now know about the brain take precedent, here's what I'd do.
1.  Mix up the schedule.  Have some times during the year when students study just one or
two things intensively, other times when survey courses and variety are the order of the day.  Consider a January Term or another structure that allows for intensive mastery of a topic of interest.  Perhaps violin or archaeology or creative writing or scientific method.  Do it for hours on end with as few interruptions as possible. In each case, focus on creation of a product or performance as the "final exam".  Here's an example of what that might look like.

2.   Instead of the typical seven-hour school day, broken up into six or seven classes, shorten the school day to four or five hours with increased study and homework expectations.  Offer support on campus after hours or allow students to go home. Educate parents on how to support student homework time. Discourage after school jobs that compete with homework.  Increase the number of school days in June and August, reducing the overlong summer break.
 3.   To the extent practical, open classes to all grade levels. There are reasons why no one wants to teach freshman classes but behaviors improve markedly when older students are present.  Take it even one step further.  Open your campus to adult learners and invite them to take any classes not yet at capacity. Make the campus welcoming to them and they'll be your best models of serious scholarship. Computer classes, history classes, welding, art and physics are all fascinating to adults. While they currently would not, lobby the state to provide up to 1/3 compensation for adult learners regularly attending.  Stop worrying that somehow we protect teens by grouping them all together and banishing adults. The reality is the opposite.
4.  Create opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery and move onto college sooner, perhaps after two years of solid study.  Also remove the stigma from "fifth year seniors" and those who need more time to acquire the skills expected of a high school graduate.  Lighten up and be flexible. We are unique in the world in expecting everyone to take the same amount of time to complete high school and move on.  Other nations continue educating their young people well into their twenties if they need that long. Here's how that might look.
We need a catalyst.  100 people could read these suggestions and agree (and another 100 disagree) but just one school needs to take the risk and create the model. Who will it be?

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