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High School Does Not Have to Be Boring

In a 30 March 2019 New York Times Opinion piece entitled, "High School Does Not Have to Be Boring," Jal Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Sarah Fine, who runs a teacher preparation program at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education in San Diego make the case (repeatedly!) that high school and - we infer - undergraduate school does not have to boring. They are the authors of  "Search of Deeper Learning:The Quest to Remake the American High School."

On the assumption that these authors know how to write a good essay we will look agt their lead sentence for key paragraphs to share and you can read the rest on line.

First, they set up the piece by pointing to the source, the students, who use "boring" as the most common descriptor of their high school experience. They then ask, "What would it take to transform high schools into more humanizing and intellectually vital places? The answer is right in front of us, if only we knew where to look." The two mistakes they made in their first attempt to address this issues are offered and are interesting and standard fare, one might say.

Here is their key finding,

"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. Intrigued, we turned our attention to these spaces. We followed a theater production. We shadowed a debate team. We observed elective courses in green engineering, gender studies, philosophical literature and more.

"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. It turned out that high schools — all of them, not just the `innovative' ones — already had a model of powerful learning. It just wasn’t where we thought it would be."

They followed theater production.

"Consider the theater production that we observed at a large public high school in an affluent suburban community. Students who had slouched their way through regular classes suddenly became capable, curious and confident. The urgency of the approaching premiere lent the endeavor a sense of momentum. Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value. Coaching replaced `professing' as the dominant mode of teaching. Apprenticeship was the primary mode of learning. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the show demanded."

I know this to be true for my brother taught theater for 35 years in a Connecticut high school and he found that you could draw out the best in students through theater, be it taking a "loner" and getting him/her to run the light board or teaching the star football player to tap dance for a production of "42nd Street." Moreover, we rarely see students high-fiving after math class the way they do when a scene is completed in rehearsal and they know they nailed it!

They followed debate team.

"What we saw on a debate team in a high-poverty urban public school was similar. Monthly debate competitions gave the work a clear sense of purpose and urgency. Faculty members and older students mentored the novices. Students told us that “debate is like a family.” Perhaps most important, debate gave students a chance to speak in their own voices on issues that mattered to them. Inducted into an ancient form of verbal and mental discipline, they discovered a source of personal power."

The see the day in school divided into two parts - the boring part - classes(before end of formal school day) and the exciting part - opportunities (after end of formal school day). They go on to say,

"In essence, two different logics reign in the same buildings. Before the final bell, we treat students as passive recipients of knowledge whose interests and identities matter little. 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.

"The truly powerful core classes that we found — and at every school there were some — echoed what we saw in extracurriculars. 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. While the experiments varied in their sophistication, all students were initiated into what it meant to do science. In turn, this allowed them to understand that science is a messy and uncertain business — much less knowable than it seems when reciting Newton’s laws."

The key words here are "do," "messy," "student designed," "experiment," and "understand." How often can we offer this in our formal classrooms, indeed, the very word formal precludes them.

Their indictment is a bit harsh, but holds truth:

"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."

There are some prescriptive observations for teachers, "Teachers need both more freedom and more support. They need longer class periods, opportunities for collaboration and teaching loads small enough to allow them to form real relationships with students. They need expectations for topic coverage that permit more opportunities for depth. 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. Finally, teachers need parents who ask, `What is my child curious about?' rather than `How did she do on the test?' "

But the real change will come when we acknowledge there may be more important goals than just content and that we need to give students the chance to grow, perhaps through failure even.

"Most important of all, high school students need to be granted much more agency, responsibility, and choice. While there are some things that everyone should know, much of what will help students in college and beyond are skills: the ability to speak and write persuasively, to reason and engage with one another’s reasoning and to think about core content in complicated ways. Happily, there are multiple paths to achieving these ends. Students can choose what scientific puzzles to explore and what English or history electives to take while still developing a shared foundation of skills."

This Opinion piece concludes with observations and opinions,

"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.

"The pervasiveness of the disengagement that we witnessed suggests a need to radically remake the American high school. At the same time, the pockets of powerful learning we observed demonstrate what is possible. Perhaps the first step involves what one school leader told us. `Most schools and classrooms are set up in ways that trigger adolescents to resist,' he said. `What we need to do is to trigger their instinct to contribute.' "

So, to paraphrase a popular banking ad we say, "What's in your classroom?" Are we helping students to grow and contribute? We are trying to do just that in SIMIODE and it is always good to receive encouragement to do so.

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