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IT TAKES A WHOLE SOCIETY: New Report Says High School Years Should Blend Academic and Applied Learning, Provide Students with Window to Outside World

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“In high school, young people are learning more about their own strengths, limitations, and qualities; beginning to find their own voice; and beginning to forge personal goals,” said Robert Halpern, professor at the Erikson Institute and author of the report. “We need to recognize and support different kinds of learning in high school that allow young people to grapple with a complex, shifting adult world.”

The high school system currently in place only offers standard, textbook-learning environments that are not conducive to the multifaceted workforce and postsecondary educational field that is developing today, according to a new report from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF), a New England-based organization dedicated to student-centered learning in high schools. With high school dropout rates at crisis levels, the report, It Takes a Whole Society: Opening Up the Learning Landscape in the High School Years, implores the American education system to become more adaptive to the changing culture and environments of young people rather than leaving it up to young people to make their way.

“In high school, young people are learning more about their own strengths, limitations, and qualities; beginning to find their own voice; and beginning to forge personal goals,” said Robert Halpern, professor at the Erikson Institute and author of the report. “We need to recognize and support different kinds of learning in high school that allow young people to grapple with a complex, shifting adult world.”

According to the report, the majority of high schools are focused too narrowly on a one-size-fits-all method of instruction in which schools offer a uniform curriculum that does not account for the growing diversity of young people. It argues that the American high school system, by assuming college is the only final objective, “may actually choke” the learning experiences of young people and limit opportunities for expansive learning beyond the classroom. As a result, it finds many high school youths are “unclear about where they might fit in the larger world beyond their neighborhood and peer group.” The report adds that this problem can be “especially acute” for students from working-class families who have less information about the kinds of postsecondary learning and preparation needed for specific occupations. Instead, the report urges a move toward incorporating multiple industries and outside partners to engage students fully in alternative learning opportunities.

The report insists that students’ high school years should provide a window to the adult world by blending academic and applied learning through introduction of apprenticeships, project-based learning, and other real-world applications. According to the report, this type of work reflects real tasks and consequences and helps engage students in useful work that results in tangible outcomes relevant to their lives. It says that students will also contribute to a community, build team skills, and learn to link their personal experience to the bigger social, moral, and ethical problems in today’s society.

It Takes a Whole Society suggests reevaluating all aspects of traditional learning, including who should be involved in high school education, how students should be assessed, and how schools and educators are evaluated. The report pinpoints examples of schools that have revamped the student learning experience, such as Washington, DC’s School Without Walls, which has infused project-based learning into the standard high school experience.

The report offers principles that should guide how schooling is redesigned: (1) Provide individualized approaches to fostering knowledge and skills that are more effective than one-size-fits-all approaches; (2) Offer learning experiences rooted outside the school walls that deliver valuable knowledge, skills and civic values that enable young people to transition to a complex adult world; (3) Cultivate diverse talents for the nation’s heterogeneous youths, which is critical to creating an interesting and enriching culture; (4) Provide a way for institutions to open up and adapt to young people, rather than leaving it to the young people to make their way—or not.

It Takes a Whole Society is available at http://bit.ly/H4vPPu.

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