How Might We Reimagine High School Education?

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership November 16, 2020

Think back to what you learned in high school. Was it amazing? Did it change your life, transforming your adolescent brain into a powerful multi-tool? Did it give you the independence and strength of character you needed to succeed in college, or whatever else you did? 

This is not a rhetorical question, but the fact that it seems like one is a sign of how much work we have yet to do. High school should be that great, but instead, most students graduate unprepared for college, lack the know-how necessary for economic mobility, and can’t use much of what they were supposedly taught (for a somewhat more optimistic view, see here).

One of the contributing causes is the well-intentioned and well-grounded desire to ensure that high school students acquire a core of declarative knowledge. We all die a little when we hear of those graduates who are unaware that Africa is a continent, or who think that human beings and dinosaurs cohabitated. 

Accreditation standards are responsible for knowledge requirements and are helpfully explicit, but they also introduce a draconian stiffness to the entire system. This is sometimes exacerbated by the inertia of school funding tied to standardized test results, outdated teacher training programs, and the textbook economy. Private and charter schools can side-step much of this—and more power to them—but if we are going to rescue public schools en masse, we must find a way to address core knowledge requirements without being hamstrung by them.

A key part of the solution is high school curricula and pedagogies that hybridize broad, cross-disciplinary skills with core knowledge. 

There are three benefits to such an approach:

1. Workplace 

As careers become less predictable and adaptability becomes critical, richly interconnected T-shaped mindsets help workers figure out how to use their strengths in new situations. If students have repeatedly been called upon to apply their science knowledge in social studies class, or their writing skills in math class, they will be nimbler when a future boss asks, “Hey, can you help with this?”

2. Civics

The world isn’t shrinking; it has shrunk. A mobile phone purchase in California has labyrinthine connections to minerals in Congo, labor in China, tax structures in France, and ecosystems in Vietnam. Citizens who understand this are better prepared to make informed decisions about the kinds of policies they want to support. 

3. Academics

Departmentalized approaches to education are completely at odds with the world itself, which cares nothing about disciplinary boundaries. More realistic education is necessarily more interdisciplinary. When teachers use real, contemporary problems in the classroom, students see the relevance of their studies. This improves engagement and helps extinguish the eternal and enervating question, “Will this be part of the exam?” Authentic buy-in from students is especially important as the financial and time costs of education become more scrutinized.

Psychologically, high school is a sweet spot for the development of cross-disciplinary concepts and skills. Adolescent brains are highly plastic, with a biology that is well-positioned to weave these cognitive fabrics. Teens are also awakening to their own agency and making plans for their future education and career. Educational programs that synthesize disciplines and focus on realistic applications can help students broaden their view, seeing how and where they might make a difference and feel most fulfilled.

How does one create these hybridized programs?

1. Use an outcomes-based approach to assessment

Articulate a set of explicit cross-disciplinary goals and incentivize students to apply as many as possible in diverse contexts. For example, “Curate and organize the evidence needed to support an argument” is a crisp, cross-disciplinary learning goal that can and should be used in every course. Be transparent: show teachers and students exactly what these skills and concepts are, and where and when they apply. This enhances curricular structures like problem-based learning and makes assessment much more robust and actionable.

2. Integrate your curriculum through time

No more “one and done” testing: If you introduce a learning outcome in the fall of year 1, hit it again in spring. Multiple times. Then again in year 2, and again a year later. Emphasize low-stakes formative assessment to avoid cramming (which is educationally ineffective) and practice each idea in varied contexts to help students prepare for novel applications. 

3. Ditch the lecture and embrace active learning

High schools have generally been better at this than higher-ed, but good active learning pedagogy is about a lot more than breakout groups and class debates. Recent guides and books can help you use the science of learning to elevate your course designs, lesson plans, and facilitation skills. Once you’ve seen how great active learning can be, you won’t look back.