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Why We Should Consider Letting High Schoolers Pick Their Classes

With decades of teaching under his belt, this former educator argues yes -- if we want education to matter.

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That proposal: Make every required course at the high school level elective. And if, say, five or more students submit a request for a class not offered, work with them to design and offer it. Take seriously the contention usually attributed to Albert Einstein that, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

I stand against this idea expressed by Marc Tucker in a January 15 Answer Sheet blog post: “There is no substitute for spelling out what we think students everywhere should know and be able to do.”

I don’t reject the notion that there are ideas so important every kid should understand them. The titles of two of my books—”What’s Worth Teaching?” and “What’s Worth Learning?” make clear what I think kids need to know. I’m convinced, for example, that a thorough understanding of the sense-making process radically improves student performance in every field of study.

Not far behind in importance I put an understanding of the unexamined societal assumptions that shape our thoughts, actions, and identities. At a less abstract level I have kids look at the familiar until it becomes “strange enough to see,” raising their awareness of how built environments manipulate them in subtle, freedom-depriving ways, and I help them develop a skill obviously lacking at the highest levels of American policymaking—the ability to imagine unintended consequences of well-intended actions (just to start a list of matters the Common Core State Standards ignore).

Yes, I have strong feelings about what kids should learn, which is why I’d put them in charge of their own educations. Experience assures me they’ll get where they need to go, and do so more efficiently than will otherwise be possible. Experience also tells me that won’t happen as long as they’re fenced in by a random mix of courses required because they’ve always been required, by courses based on elitist conceits, by courses shaped by unexamined assumptions. The core’s boundaries are far too narrow to accommodate the collective genius of adolescents.

Kids bring to the curriculum vast differences—differences in gender, maturity, personality, interests, hopes, dreams, abilities, life experiences, situation, family, peers, language, ethnicity, social class, culture, probable and possible futures, and certain indefinable qualities, all combined in dynamic, continuously evolving ways so complex they lie beyond ordinary understanding.

Today’s reformers seem unable or unwilling to grasp the instructional implications of those differences and that complexity. They treat kids as a given, undifferentiated except by grade level, with the core curriculum the lone operative variable. Just standardize and fine-tune the core, they insist, and all will be well.

That’s magical thinking, and it’s dumping genius on the street.

Don’t tell me I’m naïve, that high school kids can’t be trusted with that much responsibility, or that they’re too dumb to know what to do with it. Would it take them awhile to get used to unaccustomed autonomy? Sure. Would they suspect that the respect being shown them was faked and test it out? Of course. Would they at first opt for what they thought was Easy Street? You can count on it.

Eventually, however, their natural curiosity and the desire to make better sense of experience would get the better of them, and they’d discover that Easy Street connected directly to all other streets, and that following it was taking them places they had no intention of going, or even knew existed.

I know this because I’ve been there with them.