What did you want to learn in high school?

By Susan Kovalik, Think About It

We orchestrated a national conference celebrating the commitment of a district to support teachers in becoming “highly effective.”

My life work is demonstrating the power of effective learning/teaching. Part of the process in becoming highly effective is understanding how the brain learns, a wide range of instructional strategies and conceptual curriculum with all standards embedded, and a commitment to social/political action activities.

Of the eight schools, seven of them had made great strides in developing conceptually-based curriculum. They had a strong foundation of character education and a desire to be useful in the community. The high school teachers, all but five, chose to stay with their textbooks to meet the never-ending pressure on grades and test scores.

It made me recall a gathering in Seattle, where a small group of individuals met with journalist and historian Bill Moyers prior to a speech he delivered to another 3,000 attendees. When the opportunity arose to meet him and ask questions, my associate queued up and waited her turn.

As we constantly deliberate on the value of today’s high school preparation for “real life,” I wanted to know his thoughts on what graduating seniors should know as they move into the next stages of their lives. His answer was immediate, as though long and careful consideration had already been given to the question.

Roughly paraphrased, he said that it isn’t so much about what they know, rather it is about their ability to think critically. By that I mean they should be able to connect the dots:

• They should be able to recognize critical issues of the time and understand how they relate to one another.

• They should be able to research from a range of sources, from the common to the exceptional, in order to collect accurate data relating to the current issues.

• Next, they should be able to analyze, organize and summarize the information for dissemination to others.

• They should be willing to form intelligent opinions based on their research and what they understand.

• In conclusion, they should then not get fat on the knowledge, but they must have the courage and the skills to take action to address the issues they’ve researched.

We were clearly stunned by the readiness of an answer so deliberate and complete.

Certainly the standard fare of most high schools does not include in-depth study of current events and the thinking required to truly understand the “cause and effect” and “interrelatedness” of every major issue to arise. It also rarely includes the building of student capacity to interact in meaningful and productive ways for the betterment of our natural and human communities.

Often when we work with secondary educators, we ask them to first consider the things they wish they would have known upon graduation from high school — life lessons learned painfully at a later date.

Responses include specifics like the notion of compound interest or amortization or the ability to communicate well or to truly understand what it takes to be physically and mentally healthy.

What if, upon graduation from high school, all individuals had the ability to take care of themselves in all ways? Consider the implications on the welfare and health systems, on the national economy, on the divorce rate, on the criminal justice system.

What if all individuals graduated with the ability to be of immediate use in their communities? What if we began our conversations regarding high school content with, “What do they need in order to be contributing members of society when they graduate?”

Surely, our conversations would be different from what they are now. Studies have shown that how well one does on standardized tests is not an indicator of later success, so continual test preparation eventually dissipates into thin air like so many dust motes, not really amounting to much in the end. What if our conversations about critical content and skills revolved around a number of major themes:

• Communication

• Economics (entrepreneur opportunities to global trading)

• Relationships/personal, employee/employer, neighbor

• Environmental sciences

• Wellness

• War and peace

• Governance at local, state and national levels

• Interdependence (International Studies)

• Justice

• The Electorate

If these themes (and others like them) were accepted, it would be possible that students would leave with competence, confidence and a will to be socially responsible.

Think about it.

Susan J. Kovalik is an educator, international consultant and author in Federal Way. She is founder of The Center for Effective Learning in Federal Way who can be reached at skovalik@kovalik.com.

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