6 ways to make high school less boring
In debate teams and theatre productions, students were transformed into "capable, curious and confident" beings. Source: AFP/Jemal Countess

There is an epidemic of boredom across America’s high schools? While close to eight in 10 elementary students were “engaged” with school, only four in 10 high school students felt the same, according to a 2013 Gallup poll of half a million students. A follow-up study in 2015 found less than a third of 11th-graders felt engaged.

Causes often associated with this is the disproportionate emphasis on standardised testing, the fading novelty of school as each grade passes and a lack of motivation. Where middle school was tactile and creative, high school becomes cerebral and regimented.

To investigate this further, award-winning professor Jal Mehta and accomplished educator Sarah Fine spent six years traveling the country studying high schools. These are their suggestions on how high schools can overcome the problem:

1. Ditch the worksheets

Researchers thought the most innovative schools would have the most engaging classes. They were wrong.

Instead, they found “pervasive” boredom at the 30 public high schools that had been recommended by leaders in the field. “Students filled out worksheets, answered factual questions, constructed formulaic paragraphs, followed algorithms and conducted “experiments” for which the results were already known,” they wrote. Covering content was the focus, not deep inquiry.

2. Set a meaningful urgency

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama students perform onstage during the 72nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 10, 2018 in New York City. Source: AFP/Theo Wargo

The most “powerful learning” is happening in electives, clubs and extracurriculars. In debate teams and theatre productions, students were transformed into “capable, curious and confident” beings. An approaching premiere or an upcoming competition he following month gave them “a sense of momentum” and a “clear sense of purpose”.

3. Adopt learning by doing & teaching

It’s in the after-school hours where students really come to life. And it’s no coincidence. During extracurriculars – debate, theatre, sports, etc – this is when they are treated as “people who learn by doing”. They can teach as well as learn. Their passions and ideas heard. The more agency, responsibility and choice students get, the more interested they will be.

The results can be even more radical when students are allowed to lead their learning. “The more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be,” they wrote.

4. Encourage authentic participation

Source: AFP/Frederic J Brown

Core subject classes that mimic the active participation of extracurriculars are the most powerful ones. Letting students participate “in the authentic work of the field” is effective. This could be done in science class, as one teacher in a high-poverty-district high school did, offering a course where the students did everything from the design to the research and conduct of original experiments. The key to this success comes in the fact that students were actually doing science, instead of merely receiving information.

5. Connect to associated professional domains

Source: AFP/Charles Gallay

Extracurriculars are not boring because they are connected to their associated professional domains. In other words, it has connections to the world outside school unlike school subjects that lack context. Schools can overcome this by initiating project-based learning, collaborating with potential employers and community institutions, as well as hiring teachers with experience working in fields beyond teaching.

6. Support teachers more

More flexibility and support – that’s what teachers today need. Give them longer class periods, smaller teaching loads, more chances for meaningful teacher-student relationships, etc. Parents should ask them, “What is my child curious about?” rather than, “How did she do on the test?”.

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