Four Emerging Trends in High School Education Transformation

Jessica Zier
June 10, 2021

Between November 2020 and April 2021, Minerva Project convened 36 high school principals and academic directors from 11 countries to hear how their schools adapted and innovated during the pandemic.

Four universal themes emerged from these discussions, demonstrating common trends in the transformation of high school education:

1. Integrating Experiential Learning with Classroom Learning

With the classroom expanding to the walls of students’ homes and beyond, educators are identifying ways to bring real-world applications and mastery of learning to students’ communities and lives.

For some, this includes learning labs and volunteer opportunities, offering practical and project-based learning through real-world experience. With schools sitting empty for the past year, many educators are pondering how their facilities can be repurposed to offer space for collaborative learning. This does not necessarily mean drastic revamps, but is indicative of a changing landscape of how physical space can be used to facilitate engaging learning.

For others, a focus on redefining learning outcomes and shifting to holistic assessment is the way forward. Assessment systems that focus solely on content are inadequate, and schools are taking note of the need for intentional and integrated social and emotional learning. However, deeper assessment of capability requires more than periodic scoring and the subjective perceptions of teachers - it requires the frequent collection of data related to specific learning outcomes and a feedback system that allows students to iterate and grow over time.

2. Increased Reliance on Data

With the technical capabilities of distance learning, data is being relied on in more meaningful ways. Schools are trying to find ways to measure, analyze and utilize data to provide insights into student learning, outcomes, and the path forward. Data relating to specific learning outcomes that can be assessed over time and across courses can offer deep insight into the learner’s skills and needs.

For example, in the Minerva Baccalaureate high school program, each student practices 30 cross-disciplinary skills hundreds of times, across three years of coursework, in low-stakes classes and assignments. Data about the context of those assessments—the subject area, the type of assignment, whether it was written or spoken, etc.—are tracked and used to assemble a rich picture of cross-disciplinary skill and knowledge transfer accounting. Taken together, these data account for 75% of each student's overall diploma score. Compare that to a traditional course grade or GPA. Even non-traditional programs could do better: the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme is still primarily a disciplinary siloed program relying on high-stakes exams rather than a multi-dimensional, temporally-evolving picture of student ability. Its celebrated Theory of Knowledge (ToK) course is well-intentioned but undervalued: student performance in ToK accounts for less than 7% of the total points available on the diploma score.

Other kinds of data can also be used to improve instruction and program management. By monitoring student and instructor talk-time, for example, we can help instructors cut down on lecturing, and ensure that each student has equal opportunity to contribute to class discussion. We can also more easily track how long it takes instructors to get constructive feedback to students—critical information given that learning is maximized when that turnaround time is low.

3. Integrating Interdisciplinary Learning

Throughout human history, the convergence and collision of ideas from diverse fields have yielded some of our most profound societal advances.

Today, education tends to draw clear boundaries between disciplines. For example, the standard high school science curriculum divides biology, chemistry, and physics into discrete courses taken in different years. Even starker lines are drawn between these “hard” sciences and courses in social studies or language arts.

Not only does this misrepresent the interconnections among these fields, it all but eliminates the ability for students to transfer learning from one area into different contexts. As educators, the colloquium attendees discerned the need to think outside of disciplinary silos and place our focus on nurturing critical wisdom within and across different fields. Over half of the leaders we spoke to indicated that introducing interdisciplinarity in a high school curriculum is essential for student success in college and careers.

Despite the desire to promote interdisciplinarity, many curricular systems are not set up to assess skills across multiple disciplines. This results in transcripts that merely showcase a student's recollection of isolated disciplinary knowledge rather than offering the student or other readers of the transcript actionable insights into a student’s competencies. This article, How to Define, Teach and Assess Interdisciplinary Outcomes in High School, offers actionable steps for schools to implement.

4. Embracing Hybrid Learning

As the world continues to battle the pandemic, many high school students and their parents are eager to get back to in-person learning. Their experiences with online lectures and asynchronous worksheets has often been mediocre at best. On the other hand, many high schools have realized that a hybrid approach offers numerous benefits, like flexibility, cost-savings, and more efficient use of class time. Even as schools transition back to in-person learning, 34% of our high school leaders we spoke to noted “enabling hybrid learning” as a critical concern right now.

Low engagement, drops in retention, and inferior learning outcomes are the result of bringing largely ineffective teaching practices into the online environment. However, intentional and deliberate asynchronous coursework can complement and enhance the work that is done synchronously, whether in-person or online.

Asynchronous coursework that directly relates to in-class learning can offer students more agency and flexibility while still having structure and clear learning outcomes. The opportunity for a flipped classroom model can also offer students the chance to work on live problem-solving in class while completing readings and other self-learning activities at home. By introducing key concepts to students during their self-learning time, rather than delivering this information via a lecture, teachers can offer active learning activities designed to promote interdisciplinary concepts and skill development during class time. This could include having students work in breakout groups to apply concepts introduced in pre-class work, facilitated discussions and debates, and the use of reflection prompts at the end of class sessions.

This new era of innovation in education offers a watershed moment for transformative education reform. Rethinking high school curricula to promote experiential learning, cross-contextual practice and application, empirically-based curricular strategies, and the use of technology can guide schools towards improved learning outcomes. These four takeaways are by no means comprehensive, as there are other essential components of transformative education, but they do offer insight into the universal themes school leaders are noting around the world.

Jessica Zier graduated from Minerva Schools at KGI in 2020. She is currently the Outreach Associate of Minerva Project.

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