My high school journey in India, like that of most people across the globe, was intense for the wrong reasons. The goals of the institution were clear: deliver top performance in the nationwide graduating exams and get students into the best higher education institutions in the country. My friends and I spent most of our time studying books and memorizing as much as possible. Our teachers dedicated their time and efforts to preparing extra classes and mock exams, where we regurgitated all we learned. The objectives were clear: high grades and admission to a good university.
And those objectives were met. Students passed with top-notch grades and got into reputable universities. Fast forward five years. As a recent, well-traveled college graduate of Minerva University, I can only look back and wonder whether myself, my parents, and teachers were chasing the wrong goals.
I have enough distance now to reflect on how my and others’ high school educations could be reformed to make students not just truly college-ready, but also equip them with the skills that will help them navigate life beyond college.
1. Make classes a place to apply information rather than to gather it
My classes in high school were mostly lectures that repeated the same material in our textbooks. Class was redundant as we could just go home, read the textbook, and prepare for the exams on our own. Whether we paid attention in class seemed marginally relevant.
At Minerva University, we completed our readings before class. During class, we delved deeper through discussions and debates. My classmates and I led the discussion and the professor played the role of a moderator. Information gathering happened outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, the real learning happened. For example, we were divided into four groups and each group defended a policy proposal pertaining to California’s drought problem. Each group also represented a different stakeholder, which allowed us to look at the problem from multiple lenses and find solutions that embrace various constraints. Such active participation challenged and engaged us. It required us to be well-prepared as well as ready to face curveballs and think on the spot.
2. Teach concepts that transcend contexts
Most high schools teach basic concepts that are anchored in a subject matter. However, the world and its challenges do not fit neatly into subjects. It is why interdisciplinarity is crucial at the high school level.
One of the foundational terms we learned in my first year was #levelsofanalysis. It focuses on analyzing the characteristics or behavior of a complex system and integrates explanations found at different levels of analysis and interactions. I used it in a finance assignment to analyze why a merger of two food companies didn’t work out by looking at the organizational and market economy levels, as well as in an arts and literature assignment to examine the reception and impact of an Indian film at the state, national and global levels.
The benefit of learning such concepts and applying them in different subject areas goes beyond doing well in academics. It helps graduates analyze problems and real-world challenges in an integrated and cross-contextual way.
3. Go beyond textbooks: There are so many other sources to learn from
The textbook rules in my high school with few alternatives to other learning sources. Every class was the same: teachers used their textbooks along with reference guides of questions from previous years’ examinations and assigned homework based on the textbook.
Teachers should not be fearful of experimenting with other material such as videos, movies, podcasts, games, Google Maps, etc. In one of my history classes at Minerva, we played a video game that was set in colonial times and then discussed how different media can help inform us about the social order and different worldviews.
4. Let grades tell a story about growth
Almost anyone would agree, begrudgingly, that grades are the most important thing in high school. The focus is often on perfection, rather than growth, which puts enormous pressure on students.
At Minerva, we were graded on a scale from 1 – 5 based on how well we applied a fundamental concept. Students get multiple opportunities to apply an outcome and improve their scores over time. As students learn to better apply the outcome in classes and assignments, the final grade reflects their growing level of proficiency in that particular outcome. Furthermore, the professor provides formative feedback alongside the grades to highlight how students can improve their application of the outcome. Josh Fost, Managing Director of High Schools Innovation at Minerva Project, provides a guide on how to assess interdisciplinary outcomes in high school.
A static grade in a subject is not sufficient in representing a student’s skill set and knowledge in that subject. It is high time that high schools seek alternatives that can better present a holistic picture of the student’s progress, and encourage them to grow, instead of adding the pressure to be perfect all the time. Helping students cultivate a
growth mindset from a young age also changes their attitude and approach to problems that they may encounter in different stages of life.
5. Make assignments an opportunity to apply core concepts learned in class
Assignments in high schools often tend to take a “tick the box” approach with students picking one assignment from a list and following certain instructions to complete the assignment. The objective was to get the necessary work done to graduate.
Assignments should instead be used as an opportunity to showcase student learning. Minerva assignments were effective because:
They were built on the foundations of what we learned in class, deepened our understanding of those concepts, and provided an opportunity to apply them in a real-world context. For example, for a finance assignment, I had to collaborate with a local restaurant and do a financial analysis as well as propose business strategies that could help them in the long run.
They were guided without being prescriptive. For example, one business assignment was on a particular concept that we could apply to any field. I chose film while my colleague chose political science.
6. Teach students how to collaborate
Many high schools, including mine, still rank students according to performance. While a little healthy competition is great, what students really need to learn is how to collaborate.
High schools should invest more in creating opportunities for students to work in groups while ensuring that everyone contributes. At Minerva, my first group assignment required us to take a step back and think about the strengths and weaknesses of each student and the role that each needed to play to make the assignment successful. We also had to explain clearly who did what and why. Having that sense of accountability pushed everyone in the group to pull their weight.
Group work exposes everyone to more ideas and perspectives, which can elevate the quality of the work. A culture of collaboration, effective communication and interaction skills are pivotal in whatever field a student pursues. These skills have to be taught to kids from a young age and make them more empathetic as well as enthusiastic for collaboration.
High school is a formative time in a young person’s life and lays the foundation for any further education a student pursues. Teachers should not think of their goal as just getting their students to college, but how ready they are to be successful there. An interdisciplinary curriculum taught using an innovative and engaging pedagogy will equip students to succeed in college and beyond. Never have so many high schools been ready to embark on such a transformation, and I am excited to see what high school will look like a decade from today.
To learn more about how Minerva Baccalaureate is reforming high school education, read more here.