Reflections on the Traditional High School Model

November 22, 2016

Why do the laws of physics apply to change? Why is it so hard to transform our schools, even when they are not yielding the results that people want?

The traditional, factory model high school is one of our most outdated institutions. Most of the nation’s high schools look pretty much the same as they did fifty years ago. Students move from class to class every hour or so, give or take a few minutes, alerted by bells; the same discrete subjects are taught; the teacher is usually the center of attention at a board at the front of the room; and learning content knowledge and facts are the focus. Individual tests and tasks are prioritized over collaboration and teamwork. Bullying is often present, in part because there is no real attempt at community-building or attending to creating a positive school culture. Classroom environments might vary from teacher to teacher, including those where more innovative and engaging activities are occurring and classroom communities are being built, but each teacher, subject and classroom is often a world unto itself.

So much of schooling has stayed constant at a time when the rest of the world has changed dramatically. Any fact can be found instantly on a smartphone. The workplace has altered as have the types of jobs available. Entirely new fields and areas of study exist while others have become irrelevant or changed so significantly that they look nothing like years past—think biotechnology and virtual reality.

Given this increasing gap between our schools and the world that students enter after high school (even that dichotomy is problematic—that the wall between school and the real world is so solid), it is no surprise that employers bemoan the fact that even college graduates are unprepared for the workforce and are lacking in experience, both soft and hard skills. This gap is also the reason that Finland has rethought traditional subjects, opting instead for a more thematic, project-based approach to high school curriculum.

It is for these reasons that Pivot is embarking on a new initiative, Beyond High School, to help high schools transform themselves using Linked Learning, career-focused pathways in which all students have exposure to college-preparatory coursework, technical career-focused classes, and work-based learning experiences such as internships. In this process, the high schools we work with will reconsider and reorganize the classes they offer, how they organize time, and how they ensure that their students interact with the real world and the workplace. All aspects of the school will be considered in this design process, including instruction, teacher and student collaboration on thematic, interdisciplinary projects, professional development, and school climate and culture.

We look forward to sharing more as we delve into this important work of changing an entrenched, outdated structure that doesn’t adequately prepare young people for today’s world. And we are excited to work with our partners to build new and vibrant institutions of learning that engage and educate youth in meaningful ways while raising their preparation and achievement for life – beyond high school.