Three Lessons High Schools Should Be Teaching Their Students

Joshua Fost and Jonathan Burdick
June 8, 2022

Thoughts From Leaders in College Admission and Education Innovation

Interview by Alison Herget, Higher Education Program Manager at Minerva.

Many students feel overwhelmed when they think about life after high school. They know they want to go to college, but don’t truly understand what it takes to get there. They hope one day for a meaningful career, but don’t know where to start in preparing themselves for one. Educators can help lay the foundation for student success in college and beyond by considering these tips.

Help them understand that getting into college is not just about GPA and test scores

As most admission officers at selective colleges will tell you, they would exponentially over-enroll their class each year if they selected students only based on grades and their performance on standardized tests. Students need to look at the whole picture.

Burdick says that the numbers do not tell the whole story in an application. “Every GPA a student attains reflects the context in which they’ve developed; it’s an abstraction of three or four years’ worth of experiences. Tell me a student’s GPA and you’ve told me very little about them. Test scores have a kind of objectivity in what they’re measuring, but that measurement is only a tiny yardstick in a sea of things we’d like to understand about that student.”

Fost notes: “No matter how I'm interacting with applicants, students, or employees, I want to see knowledge and skill in action, not mere possession. In the high school context, that means coaching students to help them produce thoughtful works that show me what they, as individuals, are likely to do with the future intellectual tools they acquire,” Fost says.

Ensure opportunities for connecting ideas and skills across disciplines

Students have to be comfortable with being wrong and not always knowing the answers to a problem right from the beginning. By crafting an environment that allows them to apply skills across disciplines, students will become more confident in their ability to solve problems in unfamiliar contexts—in college, career, and life. The real world is not siloed into academic subjects. Employers want workers who are adaptable and can think logically and creatively to solve new problems, and students can and should start practicing these skills in high school and college.

“Individual workers are pressed to craft themselves as highly versatile, serial independent contractors—people who can gracefully work with diverse, variable teams and projects,” Fost says. “A T-shaped or comb-shaped education, i.e. one that includes both depth and interdisciplinary synthesis, is a fantastic preparation for that world, as well as a partial remedy for some serious socio-political problems.”

Burdick adds: “Most important problems will require some individual and group understanding of more than one discipline, whether it’s between two closely related fields or across a much wider span. Students can sometimes invest time narrowing their focus to a disciplinary question but should do that with awareness and intent; at other times they need to understand how to widen their focus to fully understand and participate in meaningful dialogue with others.”

Foster habits of deep learning and self-reflection

Caring about education, and making sure a student understands why they are studying particular topics, can not only help them discover new academic interests but also help them select a fruitful career path, avoiding the aimlessness and disillusionment that can come from merely chasing jobs that pay well and are currently in high demand, Fost says.

“Doing the work is not the point,” he notes. “Learning is the point. And to learn, you have to care about what you are doing, to understand why you are doing it.”

According to Burdick, “To aim toward a true career, the critical task every student faces is to integrate their experiences and goals. Doing this well requires regular and preferably frequent self-reflection.” He encourages students to continuously ask themselves these questions: What do I love doing most? What am I good at? What are my community’s or the world’s most important problems now, and which ones do I want to help in solving? That can help them discover more meaning in their coursework and guide them toward a meaningful life’s work.

For example, in the Minerva Baccalaureate program, students spend considerable time reflecting upon their own interests and the program culminates in a project tied to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”

“Over time, a student with a habit of self-reflection can aim closer and closer to a common intersection in answering these questions, aiming toward a harmonization of activity, skills, and focus that satisfies their simultaneous needs for joy, success, meaning, and security,” Burdick notes. “That’s a ‘career.’ ”

Joshua Fost is Managing Director of High School Innovation at Minerva Project, former Graduate Admissions Officer at Minerva University, and former professor. Jonathan Burdick is Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University.

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