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Model for Modernized, '21st Century' High School

It is no secret that numerous educators, myself included, know we are NOT properly preparing our children for the world in which they will be working. We have a content-driven, test-obsessed, politics driven school system. With the present system, consider this projection made by the director general of UNESCO (Education branch of the United Nations):
            In 15-20 years, half of the world's present jobs, some 2 billion, will no longer exist. 

This is the time-frame when today's kindergarten students will be coming out of college and entering the workforce.

The point is, are we properly preparing our students for this type of world, where we cannot know or, in many cases, even predict, what jobs they need to be prepared for?

It is not a secret that kids need to be learning how to be creative and innovative. Many will need to create their own jobs, as a matter of fact, which available technology is allowing many to do. They will need to be able to collaborate, regardless of what field they go into. They will need to know how to work fluently through multiple cultures and languages, as we are already seeing throughout all fields - this is the nature of the Internet and globalization, which is not going to suddenly go away. They will need to use a variety of technologies for communication, planning, development of ideas, graphics, and data collection and analysis (big data is also here to stay).

Answer honestly: how much of this is happening in our schools? And is focusing our energy, resources, money, and time on standardized tests teaching our kids these skills and necessary content? My answer certainly is NO.

Below is an outline of thoughts about what high school could (should) look like to better prepare our kids.

Imagine teams of teachers, where the main disciplines are represented. The teams share students, and can rotate them to do subject specific lessons and content. The power of such an arrangement is that it can provide great flexibility and multidisciplinary projects and lessons. The key word, in my opinion, is flexibility for teachers.

For example, consider any historical period being studied. The English teacher could include lessons on the literature of that period, and how it influenced the people of that period. Depending on the period, even science and math teachers could get into what was being developed and studied in STEM during that period. Transitions from one historical period to another often depend on warfare and/or technological developments. Historical evolution screams out a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach to get students thinking about how this all played out.

If we could break away from prepping for standardized testing, and have this approach on top of a portfolio based assessment system, imagine time being dedicated to creative writing, something my current students say they have not done at any point of their high school English program. Imagine 'what if' projects, where if one historical event or figure changed or was not born, how might history have changed? Or what if some scientific breakthrough came about at a different point of history compared to when it actually happened, could that have changed the course of history? Critical thinking galore. Debate and defend ideas. Serious research of multiple sources, including lessons on how to distinguish legitimate sources, and how to confirm information with multiple sources.

Time can be played with to give teachers more or less, as needed, on a daily basis. All of the teachers on the team would have access to student work and reports and could provide feedback from their respective disciplines, so students begin to understand different approaches and methods for the same topic or issue. Debates could be done by students where they would need to include information from multiple disciplines, and a common language between disciplines could be established, much like what you find out in the workplace. What if students could actually gain experience working on complex issues, where one needs to find and make use of the interconnections of disciplines and subject areas?! In today's schools, nearly everything that is done is monodisciplinary, depending on which class period you are in at the moment, with no reference or connection or even mention of another subject.

Communications tools can be included in such a class, where multi-school projects and collaborations would be started between sister schools. These could be local, national, or even international collaborations (which then allows for possible cross-cultural and language interactions, which modern workers already must do in many fields).

One could explore 'big data' by looking at large social datasets, much like what Chicago has put out (note that most scientific disciplines are now putting large datasets online - no shortage of options!). With this sort of project, computational thinking tools and skills must be taught, data analysis techniques explored and practiced, and conclusions reached based on real data. Social issues and related literature can be explored. Students could be unleashed to look at local community and political issues and try to develop proposed solutions based on data, interviews, community needs, polling data, and so on. Or what about a school partnering with a local business or industry, which provides a real-world product initiative that students need to take on in small teams and have a contest to see who can create the best and most cost effective prototype product, with, perhaps, an adjoining marketing proposal? Some real entrepreneurial experience would not hurt today's student, before heading into a world and job market that is seeing demands for innovative product ideas.

Math classes could get students working on open-ended problems, to develop mathematical modeling skills and techniques. Students learn how to attack real-world problems, perhaps redesigning subway setups to most quickly, efficiently, and safely load and unload thousands of passengers during rush hour traffic, by making and justifying assumptions, developing empirical math models from data, putting together a proposed solution and clearly writing it up and presenting it to city planners and the mayor of the city. They would need to defend their work, identify not only strengths but also weaknesses and other considerations that were not looked at; perhaps look at cost effectiveness and do sensitivity tests of their models for specific parameters of the model. They would need to compete with other groups and their models, and great conversations between groups could explore which proposals are strong and which are weak, and why; students would learn from each other.

Science research projects and labs could be done with flexible time, and skills from big data work and math modeling can be included to demonstrate other approaches of the same concepts and techniques.

Again, in how many current high school curricula and programs is this sort of experience provided to students? Do students ever see or gain any appreciation between the overlaps of subject areas and disciplines? How many students have a chance to be exposed to the notion of being a 'global citizen,' which is becoming more and more important as globalization thrusts forward with only increasing momentum? How many students have ever been exposed to even the notion of open-ended problems, and the fact that most everyday math problems do not have single, correct answers, but instead must be developed from assumptions to the point of having numerous possible solutions? How many students are being taught and must practice finding reliable online information and resources, and stay away from 'fake news' that is plaguing society? How many students are presently having a chance to do creative writing or do 'what if' scenarios in English and history classes, to help and encourage building creative and critical thinking skills?

Just a figurative handful of the ~30,000 high schools in the U.S. take an approach similar to this. Instead, schools teach how to write the 5-paragraph essay template to do well on a test. Some content is critical, to be sure, but the isolated manner with which we present content is something I have a problem with. Students are not being exposed to interconnections between various ideas coming from different classes, simply because the teachers have no communication and coordination with each other. Out in the world, from college on, work is done collaboratively and in a largely interdisciplinary way, where technologies are being used for efficiency, speed, and increased productivity. Workers can expect to have perhaps double-digit numbers of jobs in their lifetime, since jobs come and go so much more quickly, that skills and knowing how to learn new information and skills is critical.

By the way, I also am a firm supporter of physical education, exposure to foreign language, all of the arts (including dance), introductory computer programming for each student, and exposure to philosophy, business and finance topics. But many of these depend a lot on each districts' resources and staffing, which is why I have the focus on core subjects that every school will have.

The point of this is to begin thinking about what we are doing, and what we could be (and should be) doing in our high schools. 
Our students are NOT being taught, or even exposed, to the types of thinking, work and skills they will need ten years, even five years, from now. Schools need to get out of the industrial age training, and into a mode where students can prepare for the technology-information-automation age that is exponentially accelerating, and a world that is unknown to us while they do their schooling.


  1. This is exactly how we should be teaching and doing school. it would also incorporate NGSS so that students can try to solve real world problems using all the disciplines of academia and can at the same time develop relationships within students and staff. It would also build community. You could have quarter themes or questions that can be address by all disciplines and presented in a monthly summit on real world issues. It would take all participants to help with organization, resources and facilitation of collaboration in order for this to happen. The school would have to make this idea its mission and culture. I hope this could be the reality in my lifetime so the future of our students in the ever changing world would be success.

  2. Indeed! The trouble we have is politicians being in charge of education policy and funding. Longer-term fixes are difficult to start since political cycles require something to be done in the short-term, such as test scores they can show voters. It is a challenge to make this type of change within our political system.