It’s easy to feel bitter about the traditional high school when it’s sharply contrasted with a radical, project-based, technology-heavy magnet school just down the street. As a student who found herself in that exact position in high school, I vehemently argued for the traditional ways of high school, desperately trying to prove that even in a broken system I, too, could succeed just as much as any student with a lap top and some radical new practices.
But, if I were to let go of my pride and be honest with myself, I would completely agree with the radical, innovative approaches to education—anything that would be a move away from the assembly-line model of the traditional high school I attended. For me, the underlying principle of these radical changes would be in increase in personal freedom for students and teachers alike.
The first way to increase freedom is to increase access, including access to experts, technology, and supplies. In my ideal school, every student would receive a personal computer. Students would also be able to rent high-end cameras, sound systems, and other equipment in order to aid in projects and personal endeavors. Often students are limited in their options because of their inaccessibility to technology; more access would create more options, leading to more overall personal freedom to explore academic pursuits.
After providing the tools to the students, teachers and administrators should provide direction. That is, share the state and school standards of education for the child, but then together as a teacher and student develop individual objectives for fulfilling those requirements. Allow the student to be involved in deciding his or her education. For example, students can choose to fulfill requirements for learning about the French Revolution by organizing a mock trial for King Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette; or, to fulfill a requirement concerning understanding sound waves and physics, students can collaborate to create a Ruben’s Flame Tube and then organize a visit to a sixth grade class to explain the physics. Students should also be involved in the evaluation process by providing a reflection essay or speaking one-on-one with the teacher about personal performance.
Notice that both the examples concerning personalized exploration of education includes students collaborating in groups. Collaboration is an essential skill for life, and beyond that, working together in teams open up more opportunities for academic exploration. Two or three or four people can arguably do far more than one person alone. Of course, some students prefer to work in smaller groups or even individually, but my ideal school would emphasize open communication in groups about these specific preferences. The student who prefers to work individually can communicate his or her desire and the group can come up with solution that best meets those individual’s needs (such as assigning the individual a task that is best done alone but will contribute to the group’s effort). Differences in individual’s work preferences are encouraged because it allows students to problem-solve and negotiate those preferences.
The ideas discussed aren’t particularly radical, but rather a step in the right direction. I saw firsthand how difficult—but still possible—it is to create a completely project-based, flexible, freedom-enhancing high school, especially when considering the teacher, parent, and community backlash against such radical changes. However, I also saw how manageable it is for those radical ideas to slowly trickle into the traditional high school setting. The basic principles of increasing student freedom by creating more accessibility, providing flexibility in approaching learning standards, and encouraging working collaboratively on projects can drastically improve a traditional high school setting—this coming from a student who witnessed the adoption of these principles and their effectiveness in a traditional high school. Perhaps the “ideal” is a little more achievable than we give it credit for.