What might high school look like if we really thought about re-designing it in a serious way? By this I mean, in a way that ignores what text book makers, test makers, Common Core advocates, and teachers who do not want to change how they teach want.
Or, to put this another way, how can we make high school, fun, exciting, useful, and something that sends children off on a path that reflects their own interests and passions?
We need some clearly defined outcomes first, so let’s state upfront that there are some core skills that must be learned in any curriculum but that these are not the ones that we usually talk about when we go through the usual litany of mathematics, science, history and literature.
I assume, therefore that for any curriculum I discuss below, there will be a heavy component of reading, writing, teamwork and reasoning. And, I assume that reasoning would include, planning, prediction, judgment, evaluation and other core cognitive skills I have discussed in the past. (Teaching Minds, Teachers College Press.)
The First Year of High School
The goal is to get students excited about something. This means that students would be offered the option of working on projects with clearly defined goals in the following areas:
Science, engineering, design, art, music, health, construction, architecture, computers, business, law, finance, anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, film, television, foreign languages, foreign cultures, service industry.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It is meant to reflect the range of jobs one can have in the world. We can always make it bigger. Some of the terms above are quite general. So, by “business” one could mean wholesale, retail, investment banking, insurance and a range of other things. The idea is to enable a student to do any of those that a student chooses to do.
I am proposing that the list be finite. So, for sake of argument, since I listed about 25 domains of interest, let’s say that a student on entering high school would have to make a choice to pursue one of these 25 areas for one month. That month would consist of one project, with the material for it on line, and with an on line mentor available, and with a physically available teacher watching to see that students were engaged and working and available to help when they were frustrated. The students would work in on line teams of 3-5 kids, who could be located anywhere. The projects would not be teaching theory, just practice at doing something simple within that domain. They would all involve writing, drawing conclusions about how to do things, reflection, and discussion. There would be no grades. At the end of the month, the student would have a simple choice to make between these three choices:
1. Leave this school and do something else
2. Do a next project in the same domain that builds on the one what was done in the first month.
3. Change domains and do a different project.
The first year of high school therefore would have no classes, no tests, and no grades. It would have lots of choices. Eight months of high school could mean eight unrelated projects, or one project area that gets increasingly complex each month, or anything in between.
The Second Year of High School
The student would be encouraged to change the game plan that he or she has followed so far. So, for example, if the student did only music, or only computers for the first year, they would be encouraged to choose something else to concentrate on, but would also be allowed to pursue what they had started in parallel. The point here is to make sure that a student doesn’t get too narrow too fast, and to allow students who are excited by something to continue to pursue it.
The Third Year of High School
By now, a student would have tasted seriously at least two or three domains. A this point they could choose to pursue two of them seriously, or they could continue trying our new things.
The Fourth Year of High School
In the student’s final year they choose one thing and stick to it. They must produce something worthwhile or invent something or demonstrate the ability to be useful to an employer in some domain. Businesses would be encouraged to hire students as interns to try out the skills that would by this time have been honed for 1-3 years in a given domain of interest.
What would this high school produce? Happy, employable, kids who could choose further study or simply go to work.
How hard is this to do? It simply requires money to build it and help from experts in doing the building.
We can do this. We simply need to abandon the old model and get started.