My high school journey in India, like that of most people across the globe, was intense for the wrong reasons. The goal of the institution was clear - to deliver top performance in the nationwide graduating exams and get students into the finest higher education institutions in the country. My friends and I spent most of our time with books, memorizing as much as our brains could. Our teachers dedicated their time and effort to preparing us with extra classes and mock exams, where we would regurgitate all that we learnt. The objective was clear: high grades and admission to a good university.
And that objective was met. Students passed with top-notch grades and got into reputed universities. Fast forward five years. As a recent, well-traveled college graduate of Minerva University, I can only look back and wonder whether myself, my parents, and teachers were chasing the wrong goals.
I have now enough distance - without the faded memory- to reflect on how my and others’ high school education could be reformed to make students not just truly college-ready, but also equip them with skills that can help navigate life beyond college.
My classes in high school were mostly lectures that repeated the same material that was in our textbooks. The class felt redundant as we could just go home, read the textbook and prepare for the exams on our own. Whether we paid attention in class or not seemed marginally relevant.
At Minerva University, we had to do our readings beforehand. During class, we dug deeper through discussions and debates. My classmates and I were the ones leading the discussion with the professor playing the role of a moderator. Information gathering happened outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, was where the real learning happened. For example, in one of the classes, we were divided into four groups, with each group defending a policy proposal pertaining to California’s drought problem. Each group represented a different stakeholder, looking at a problem through multiple lenses and trying to find a solution embracing various constraints. Being required to actively participate and challenge ourselves in the classes made them much more engaging. Such active participation required us to be well-prepared, ready to face curveballs, and think on-the-spot.
Most high schools teach some basic notions and concepts that are anchored in a subject matter or context. However the world and its challenges do not fit neatly into subject matters. That is why interdisciplinarity, which teaches concepts that transcend contexts, is crucial at the high school level.
One of the foundational concepts we learnt in my first-year was ‘#levelsofanalysis’. This particular outcome focuses on analyzing characteristics or behavior of a complex system, integrating explanations found at different levels of analysis and their interactions. I used it in finance to analyze why a merger of two food companies didn’t work out looking at the organizational and market economy levels, as well as in an arts and literature assignment examining the reception and impact of an Indian film at the state, national and global levels.
The benefit of learning such concepts and applying them in different subject areas or contexts goes beyond doing well in academics. It helps graduates analyze problems and real-world challenges in an integrated and cross-contextual way.
The textbook rules in my high school with few alternatives to other learning sources. Every class was the same - the teacher would use their textbook, a reference guide with questions from previous years’ examinations, and then assign homework which needed to be done based on the information found in the textbook.
Teachers should not be fearful in experimenting with other material such as videos, movies, podcasts, games, Google Maps, etc. In one of my history classes at Minerva, we played a video game that was set in colonial times, and then had a discussion on how different media can help inform us about the social order and different worldviews.
Almost anyone would agree, begrudgingly, that grades are the most important thing in high school. The focus is often on perfection, rather than growth, which puts enormous pressure on students.
At Minerva, we were graded on a scale from 1 - 5 based on how well we apply a fundamental concept. The students get multiple opportunities to apply an outcome and improve their score over time. As the student learns to apply the outcome better in classes and assignments, the final grade reflects their growing level of proficiency in that particular outcome. Furthermore, the professor provides formative feedback alongside the grades highlighting how the student can improve their application of the outcome. Josh Fost, Managing Director of High Schools Innovation at Minerva Project provides a guide on how to assess interdisciplinary outcomes in high school.
A static grade in a subject is not sufficient in representing a student’s skill set and knowledge in that subject. It is high time that high schools seek alternatives that can better present a holistic picture of the student’s progress, and encourage them to grow, instead of adding the pressure to be perfect all the time. Helping students cultivate a growth mindset from a young age also changes their attitude and approach to problems that they may encounter in different stages of life.
Assignments in high schools often tend to take a “tick the box” approach with students picking one assignment from a list and following certain instructions to complete the assignment - the objective being getting the necessary work done to graduate.
They should rather be used as an opportunity to showcase the impact of what the students are learning. What made the assignments that I did at Minerva effective was that:
1) they were built on the foundations of what we learnt in class, deepening our understanding of those concepts and providing an opportunity to apply them in a real-world context. For example, for a finance assignment, I had to collaborate with a local restaurant and do a financial analysis and propose business strategies that could help them in the long run.
2) they were guided without being prescriptive. For example, one business assignment was around a particular concept taught in class but we could apply it to any field for the assignment. I chose film while my colleague chose political science.
Many high schools, including mine, still rank students according to performance. While a little healthy competition is great, what students really need to learn is how to collaborate.
High schools should invest more in creating opportunities for students to work in groups, while ensuring that everyone contributes. At Minerva, my first group assignment required us to take a step back and think about the strengths and weaknesses of each student and the role that each needed to play to make the assignment succeed. We also had to explain clearly who did what and why. Having that sense of accountability pushed everyone in the group to pull their weight.
Group work exposes everyone to more ideas and perspectives which can elevate the quality of the work. A culture of collaboration, effective communication and interaction skills are pivotal in whatever field a student pursues. These skills have to be taught to kids from a young age - making them more empathetic and enthused for collaborating with others.
High school is a formative time in a young person’s life, and lays the foundation for any further education a student will pursue. Teachers should not think of their goal as just getting their students to university, but how ready they would be to be successful there. An interdisciplinary curriculum taught using an innovative and engaging pedagogy will equip students to succeed in college and beyond. Never have so many high schools been ready to embark on such a transformation, and I am excited what high school will look like a decade from today.
To learn more about how Minerva Baccalaureate is reforming high school education, read more here.