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Give High School Students the Same Freedom as College Students

Real learning thrives when students have real choices. Give high school students the same freedom as college students, and we'll take education a step in the right direction.
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Imagine this: You're 16 and sitting bored in chemistry class. The teacher's lecturing about acids and bases, and you're thinking to yourself, "This is straight out of the textbook. I could read this on my own."

So you get up and walk out, without saying a word.

In high school, we all know what happens next: raised voices, stern warnings, a trip to the principal's office, and possible detention.

Do the same thing in college, and no one bats an eye. Why?

* * *

First, a little backstory: I was that kid sitting bored in high school chemistry class.

While I loved my teacher (high five, Mrs. Mohammed!) and found chemistry interesting, the pacing, rules, and traditional lecture format of the class stifled me.

I wanted to skip the stuff that I could learn from the book (like acids and bases) and wallow in the stuff that actually required a teacher (like quantum mechanics). I wanted to do my homework during class. And sometimes I wanted to simply walk out of the most boring lectures. If Khan Academy had existed in the late nineties, I would have been all over it.

But in high school, attendance and participation were a big part of the grade--so my success required sitting listlessly at a desk for a disturbingly large amount of time.

Then I went to college, and suddenly everyone was singing a different tune:

Don't want to show up to class? Think you can learn it on your own? Fine. Problem sets are due each Friday, the midterm is in six weeks, the final exam is in 12 weeks, and here's a list of what each exam will test. Good luck.

Sitting in class but not participating? Fiddling around on your computer? Not taking notes? It's all copacetic. You're probably missing out. Your loss.

Bored? Getting nothing out of this class? Then why are you here? Drop it and find something you love.

To me, the implicit message behind these college classroom policies was: You're an adult, and you can make your own decisions. Or at least: you'd better become an adult pretty quickly to succeed here.

Learning like an adult didn't mean doing everything on my own. If I needed support, I could find it in the form of office hours, study groups, and teaching assistants. But it was up to me to take them or leave them.

In college I discovered a learning atmosphere that respected, trusted, and encouraged me to make responsible choices. Transitioning from high school to college felt like liberation. And it left me wondering: Why don't we do this sooner? What if we treated all high school students like college students?

* * *

The main ways that college often differs from high school include:
  1. Class attendance isn't mandatory (unless it's creative writing, rhetoric, choir, or a science lab, for example).
  2. Learning goals are largely results-oriented (i.e., achieved through a final exam, paper, or project--not attendance).
  3. Students choose their own classes.

What would happen if my childhood high school instituted these policies? What if we changed the organizational structure of school by letting students vote with their feet and learn by consent? Here's what I predict:

  • Attendance at the worst classes would drop sharply.
  • Attendance at the best classes would stay roughly the same (or even rise) .
  • Students and parents would demand better teachers and more elective classes.
  • Libraries, study halls, and space for clubs would greatly expand.
  • The school would adapt to offer extensive new training and support in the realm of meta-learning (i.e., learning how to learn): independent study skills, work habits, personal organization, research, and self-reflection on which courses to choose.
  • Fewer total students would attend classes, but learning, engagement, and retention rates would skyrocket.

If high school were run more like college, we could still have rigorous academic standards; we could still have publicly funded education; we could still provide a safe, supportive home-away-from-home for young people--we'd just have to go about it differently.

Of course, there would be difficult and unpleasant consequences.

What if students only wanted to take "fun" classes, and not the "hard" or "important" ones? We'd have to create more engaging classes and scale down our vision of a required curriculum. Look at the general education requirements at most liberal arts colleges for an example. Perhaps we could ask high-schoolers to complete 10 general education courses, in at least 5 different subject areas, over the course of 4 years, in order to graduate. If you were a teen, would you take this bargain? I suspect that more "hard" and "important" learning would happen if we required less of it, let teachers design more creative and engaging courses, and let students choose between many competing options.

What if the "motivated" and "responsible" students flourished in this new environment, and others didn't? Then let's focus on fostering and supporting motivation and responsibility. The first step would be to offer every first-year student a hands-on course in self-directed learning, and then support them with ongoing one-on-one and small-group coaching. That K-12 education is ostensibly about learning, yet we never help our students learn how to learn, boggles my mind.

What about students who don't want to attend any classes or study at all? Wouldn't they just cause a ruckus for everyone else who's trying to learn? Yes, and this would be an opportunity to develop new courses and programs that engage young people of vastly differing learning styles, backgrounds, and inclinations. An approach like the small schools movement might make this possible. Let no school exceed a few hundred in size (as John Taylor Gatto suggests), and we could witness a diversity of small, local solutions arise to meet the diversity of teenagers' needs and dreams.

Here are a few other wild ideas.

  • What if students could travel between schools in the same district in order to attend their favorite classes and activities?
  • What if high school classes and activities weren't bundled into an all-or-nothing package, enabling homeschoolers and part-time students to selectively join a study hall, AP Calculus class, or football team?
  • What if high school had a total open-door policy, so the students who really didn't want to be there didn't have to be?

These aren't wild ideas because they breach common sense, but because they would require a radical reorganizing of our schools, their funding mechanisms, and perhaps even civil society. We fear the specter of teenager gangs roving the streets. We fear the idea of schools closing with no one--in our incredibly dynamic and philanthropic society--stepping up to fill the void.

Yes, such reforms would create big, new, wicked problems. But would these problems be worse than the sclerotic system we have right now? That's not clear to me. As we move farther into an era that requires intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning for career and personal success, I think reforms that embrace student freedom would help more young people than they'd harm.

Real learning thrives when students have real choices. Give high school students the same freedom as college students, and we'll take education a step in the right direction.

* * *

To witness these principles in action, here are a few places to check out:

Blake Boles is building a program to help teenagers become better self-directed learners. Join his author mailing list to follow its progress.

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