Redesigning the High School Experience for the Modern Student
High school occupies an outsized place in the American popular imagination, reflected in the sheer volume of movies and television shows portraying adolescence and high school. These narratives range from glory days nostalgia to high social drama. Through all this, we collectively imagine high school as a formative period defined by intense experiences—whether it’s the best time in life, the worst, or simply the most boring.
Academic apathy remains one of the most essential and enduring themes in our popular conception of high school. And with good reason. Many high schoolers struggle to engage and find relevance in an outdated educational experience, one designed to prepare workers for the demands of factory jobs rather than to thrive as individuals, leaders, and entrepreneurs. With the emergence of the knowledge and tech-driven economies, there is a widening disconnect between the model of education we’ve inherited and what today’s young people need in order to face future challenges.
The need to redesign high school is also a matter of equity. The current generation of American high schoolers is more diverse than ever before, yet most of our traditional approaches contribute to widening rather than closing opportunity gaps along racial and socio-economic lines. It is clear that the old ways of “doing school” have been exhausted, but still, we reenact them to the detriment of all students, and especially those who have been underserved all along.
To make high school meaningful and valuable for all students, it is essential that we redesign the high school experience. At a fundamental level, this means replacing the existing norm, the one that prioritizes order, compliance, and standardization. Instead, we must prioritize dynamic, experiential learning that is relevant to individual student interests and needs. High school should be a rigorous learning experience in which all students are challenged to see the world and their community differently, to learn how to solve problems that they care about, and to develop a broad range of academic and social and emotional skills.
We are seeing this new paradigm in select schools and communities across the country. In a social studies class, for example, instead of listening to lectures and memorizing facts, students are immersed in real-world issues that affect their communities and use inquiry-based learning and historic references to develop first-hand understanding of democracy and civic engagement. To demonstrate evidence of learning, students work together to produce documentaries, podcasts, and web content to understand opposing viewpoints and bring issues to life.
Rigorous, engaging experiences like this—regardless of the subject matter—exist right now because of heroic teachers who are willing to build something the typical high school learning environment simply isn’t designed to support. Interviews at high schools reveal that even high performing students in advanced coursework see traditional academic achievement as less about deep learning and more about “the game of school.” They are driven to earn the grades and build the transcript that will enable future success. Seat-time and Carnegie-units, measures that have traditionally been used to indicate whether or not a student has received a sufficiently rigorous education, are hopelessly outdated relics of the compliance-oriented factory model of high school. Deeper, more meaningful learning is more likely to happen outside the classroom, thanks to programs and experiences that truly challenge students, reflect their interests, and stretch their capabilities.
Any effort to redesign the high school experience will fall short if it does not focus on advancing social and emotional development. It is vital to ensure all students have the opportunity to build healthy relationships, productively navigate challenges, and gain essential interpersonal skills. Not only are these skills linked with academic achievement, they are also vital to success in work and life, enabling young people to effectively manage the wide variety of positive and negative experiences that will shape their lives. Although its importance and value are widely understood, social and emotional development are too often relegated to the margins. Most high schools foster anonymity rather than relationships, leaving teachers and counselors scrambling to build relationships in stolen minutes, through additional, layered-on programs. While many high schools hope that social and emotional development will happen, they do not organize the educational experience to prioritize it.
What’s exciting is that we’re seeing this work taking root as more and more educators and communities eschew the traditional conception of high school for one in which student engagement and achievement are commonplace rather than exceptional. They are showing that the hard work of redesigning the traditional high school, in many ways more challenging than starting from scratch, can overcome major barriers to progress like operational logistics, school sports culture, and nostalgia. Local community and industry partners have critical roles to play in this work, including helping educators and families understand that the traditional model no longer serves students who will work and live in a dynamic, complex world.
In the urgency of the current moment—defined by persistent opportunity gaps, technological advances that have long given young people new ways to access information, and fierce global competition—students, families and communities require more from the high school experience. It is well past time that we give them a new understanding of what high school can be.