5 Barriers to the Redesign of High Schools

January 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm Leave a comment

Linda Mariotti, President of ASCD, wrote a compelling message in the November 2009 ASCD newsletter about the need for High School Redesign.  I was so impressed with this article that it continues to sit on top of the piles on my desk, and I’ve referenced it many times.  Key points she made include the need to explore meaningful graduation requirements, focusing on 21st century skills, and abandoning the outdated factory school model.  Finally, she emphasized that it is not about the amount of time spent in school but rather what is done with time–before, during and after school.  I agree with her on all points.

Regardless of where you live in America, it would be difficult to ignore the impact that technology and  globalization are having on our daily lives.  Yet, I would argue that we pretty much approach high school education very much like we always have.  We teach subjects in isolation and with very little connection to the outside world.  If technology is being used, often it is simply an automation of the past, but more often we have banned technology that we don’t know how to control.

I believe it was Don Tapscott who described what it is like for today’s youth to walk through the doors of their schools.  He described is as something to the effect of, “Goooing into slooowww motion.”  Think about it.  Until the time they walk through the doors of schools, they are bombarded with information and they are multi-tasking (if there is such a thing.).  They may be listening to music, texting with multiple friends, monitoring their e-mail and studying simultaneously.  This is in stark contrast to the standard operating procedure of most schools.

I would challenge any of you to take a mental, imaginary walk up and down the halls of any high school and peer into the classroom doors.  What do you expect to see?  I’ve asked many high school staff members this very question, and the answers vary very little.  Common responses include things like: the teacher standing at the front of the room delivering information, some students sleeping, some students gazing at the teacher and maybe taking notes etc.  The point is that student engagement is often sorely lacking.

Additionally, a colleague has asked thousands of educators a very simple question.  “If you were to ask high school students  what one word they would use to describe schools, what would it be?”  Without hesitation, it is pegged nearly every time.  The most common response is ‘boring.’  If boring is a desirable condition for learning, I think we’ve got it down pat.  Other common answers include irrelevant, like a prison and long.

So what keeps us from successfully transforming our high schools?

1.  An important function that schools provide society is custodial daycare.  In general, I think it is safe to say that communities are not ready for high schools that don’t consistently ‘house’ teenagers for the traditional school day.

2.  Tradition.  Never mind the fact that the world in which our kids are going to live and compete is dramatically different, we still fight the mentality that “It was good enough for me, and it is good enough for them.”  Some argue that our current educational practices created the greatest free country in the world.  While this may be true, times are different, which means we may now be preparing our kids for the past.

3.  To borrow from Jim Collin’s, “Good is the Enemy of Great.” In fact, it is quite amazing. Many parents will tell you that schools need to change, but not the school their kids attend.  In fact, they’ll say the schools in their neighborhood are pretty good.

4.  Everybody has an experience with schools and therefore has an opinion and picture of what schools should be.  The general public is not opposed to change in education, until it looks dramatically different from their experience or picture of what education looks like.

5.  For some reason, despite the data, we continue to believe that the ultimate is for all kids to go to college so our curriculum continues to cater to a college prep curriculum.  If you doubt this, check and see what the first cuts are during economic downturns.  I’m not anti-college, I just recognize that only about 25-30% of the job opportunities require a college degree, while 60-70% require training beyond high school.  On the other hand, very few opportunities exist for individuals without some skills/knowledge development beyond high school.

In short, preparing today’s youth for the world in which they’ll live will require SYSTEMIC CHANGES (not tweaking the current system) to foster the kind of learning environment conducive to preparing students to access, analyze and apply information to solve both predictable and unpredictable real life problems.


Entry filed under: Education. Tags: , , .

This Blog has Been Moved Kevin Honeycutt–I need my teachers to learn.

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