High school that works for all students

I just got back from a series of school visits for my book research. It is always re-invigorating to get back into schools, and these visits were particularly interesting because they were to schools that have instructional approaches which are fairly new to me. I was particularly struck by my visit to the MET Schools in Providence, RI, schools which approach learning in a very different way than traditional secondary schools. The underlying philosophy is that human beings are situational learners, namely, that we learn things best when we learn them in the context in which we need to know them. Certainly, this makes sense. Young children learn by doing, and they learn to do whatever they need to do at any given moment in order to explore, navigate and master the environment they are in. If a child lives in a community where people speak only Mandarin, he learns Mandarin. If she is in a household of people who are deaf-mute, she will learn to communicate in sign language. If children are provided with environments that require them to climb, read, weave baskets, ride bicycles, milk cows, or forage for food, they will learn these skills. This is how human beings have always learned.

It is only once we enter the world of formal education that learning is taken out of the context of our lives. Instead, it is put into discrete and separate buckets that we call subjects, and we ask students to learn this content in the absence of immediate life contexts. There is a spectrum of educational practice, of course. As an early childhood and elementary school teacher I was taught to try and link as much new knowledge as possible to contexts and information students already knew. This was facilitated by the fact that the basic science, social studies and math that young students learn is very much applicable and related to their lives: adding, subtracting, counting, identifying patterns, learning about time. The older students get, the more abstract and removed from their actual lives subject matter becomes. The Napoleonic Wars have very little relevance to the life of an average (or even not so average) American 10th grader. The same goes for calculus, the Krebs Cycle, and the Canterbury Tales. This is not to say that aspects of what we group together in large buckets called “biology”, “physics”, “math” and “history” aren’t very relevant and important to students and their lives, but they way we currently package knowledge to deliver to students, they can be forgiven for not realizing it.

The MET schools flip secondary school on its head by placing the primary focus on the acquisition of transferrable skills: empirical reasoning; quantitative reasoning; communication; social reasoning and personal qualities. The schools are structured so that one teacher (or Advisor) facilitates the learning experiences of approximately 15 students over the course of all four years Note here that I said “facilitates” not “teaches.” Students can and do work with many other adults, including formal teachers over the course of their years in high school, but the Advisor helps keep track of a student’s learning experiences to ensure that they are coherent and cover all necessary requirements. Students begin ninth grade by taking an inventory of themselves: their interests, their passions, how they best learn, their aptitudes – basically, the sort of self-exploration that many adults in their 30s and 40s tend to take on when they find themselves hating what they are doing or finding their lives devoid of meaning. This is exemplified by the million-dollar self-help industry that includes books like “What Color is My Parachute?”; “Finding the Element” and programs like those of Tony Robbins that promise to help adults find meaning in life and work.

The students then spend a couple of months exploring careers, using tools like the O*Net site, which identify career clusters and describe the general aptitudes and skills needed to be successful in them. The students identify fields they find interesting and aligned with their self-assessment outcomes. They schedule meetings, conduct informational interviews with people in the field, and undertake other types of research to understand what these careers entail, the type of work that is done day-to-day and the skills people working in those fields need. The ninth graders with whom I spoke had a better handle on who they were and the range of careers that exist in the world than I had even after graduating college. Having recently gone through a professional transition that resulted in my pausing and taking inventory of my skills, strengths and interests, I couldn’t help being envious that they were being given this opportunity and support so early on.

The rest of high school at MET entails a combination of school and class-based experiences, and internships that are chosen by students in consultation with their Advisors and families as they progressively hone in on what they want their post-high school experience to be: 4-year college; technical or vocational training programs; or going straight into the workforce. As much as possible, content is covered and learned through the context of internships. Students are assessed primarily through portfolios of work they compile based on their individual internships and formal coursework, and through presentations of learning in public exhibitions held multiple times each year.

One young man I interviewed knew coming into high school that he was interested in fashion. His internships allowed him to understand the breadth of what working in this field entails. His ideas of what he wanted to do evolved over time as he learned about the process of making fabrics and dyes; apprenticed with a designer and learned to make, cut and sew patterns; worked with a woman who had started her own fashion line; and took specialized courses at Parsons in New York and local colleges. He learned workplace skills, researched and wrote reports that dealt with the science of fabric-making; the history of the industry. He took additional math and science classes that were relevant to his personal next-steps. Did he walk away having learned (and then forgotten) specific information like the Krebs cycle or fundamental theorem of calculus? Perhaps not. Had he learned specific scientific and mathematical information that was relevant to the work he was doing? Absolutely. Had he developed quantitative and empirical reasoning skills, the ability to write and speak clearly about the work he was doing? Absolutely.

Another student wants to attend four-year college but is not sure what she wants to study. Her four years were spent doing a range of internships that exposed her to different possible careers. For example, she was selected for a competitive engineering internship; the seven students in the internship will design and build a range of projects under the supervision of a mechanical/civic engineer. They will learn about calculus, algebra and physics because they need to know specific skills and knowledge within each of those content areas in order to build safe, workable structures. In addition to her internships, she has taken more traditional classes that ensure she covers the specific math, science, history, and language requirements needed for application to a competitive four-year college.

A third student is a former gang member whose middle school career was littered with disciplinary actions. He knows he wants to work with students in gangs; he also likes fixing cars. He told me he would have dropped out of high school if he hadn’t ended up at MET because he hated school and felt it was useless given what he wanted to do. He is now interning with a local street worker who works with gang members and he has apprenticed at a few places working on cars. He has and plans to accept a job as a junior street worker, and at one of his auto internship sites. Is he engaged in school? Yes, because he understands why it matters for the work he wants to do. Will he formally take calculus and physics? Probably not. Is he learning the social, quantitative and analytical skills he needs to know to do the work he wants to do? Yes. Will he be able to learn the new information he needs to learn to continue to do his job as technology changes? Yes. He will either learn on the job or go back and get additional, specific training.

We make noises in policy about the need to individualize instruction for all students. We claim we want to make school engaging and interesting to students. We say that content is less important than the development of transferrable skills that are more relevant in a constantly changing world. We say that we understand that students will take different pathways after high school. Yet, as I will explore in my next post, when I share my stories from the MET school the reaction of the very people who say these things and who are currently in charge of making education policy is surprisingly tepid. The reality is that we can’t have it all. We can’t, on the one hand, say that we want to individualize education for and engage all students; yet, on the other hand, put a stake in the ground around minimum graduation requirements that essentially requires all high school students to have the same experience. (I happen to be linking to Colorado documents because I am a Coloradan, but every state has equivalent documents and requirements). The truth is that notions of success are reflections of our own biographies and the biographies of those of us driving policy are decidedly homogenous. It is worth asking ourselves whether we are willing to act upon the values we say we embrace when it comes to what high school can and should look like in order to truly meet the needs of individual students.

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