High schools are a disaster (in their current form)

I’d like to confess, as a disclaimer, that I’m no expert in the field of pedagogy. All that follows are personal considerations inspired by my individual experience as a student, and oblivious of the relevant literature, that I’m sure has at length, with greater authority and with a more convincing approach, dealt with the topics I’m about to get into.

The importance of high school is well clear in everybody’s mind. It’s the educational moment right before college and, in many countries, the last, and highest-level school that all citizens are called to attend, compulsorily.

The awareness of this importance is the reason why all countries with a respectable Human Development Index make public high schools mandatory and mostly costless.

Outlining requirements

This is a list of goals that, in my mind, schools, at any level, should set for their students:

  1. Enhance their intellectual abilities (their logic, memory, linguistic strength, propension to make multi-disciplinary connections, mental openness and independent thought, among many others)
  2. Increase their understanding of the world by transmitting them knowledge
  3. Help them uncover their inclinations, passions and interests, encourage and teach them how to invest on those. Ultimately accompany them in their path to the choice of their future and of their place in society.
  4. Educate them to a balanced existence. Teach them strategies to cope better with their own emotions. Train them to a healthy lifestyle and make them aware of possible threats to their health.
  5. Educate them to a balanced coexistence with their peers and all other components of the society. Instruct them to try understanding and empathizing with others’ emotions. Encourage collaboration and functional, appropriate interactions with other human beings. Stimulate positive debate and confrontation. Promote cultural integration.
  6. Instruct them on how to navigate our society. Educate them on the importance of checking the reliability of the sources of news or information. Make them statistically literate. Instill in them respect for the institutions, teach them how government bodies work and cultivate them as active and aware members of their community. Expose them to the fundamental principles and values our society is built on (such as freedom of speech and the rejection of gratuitous violence).
  7. Prepare them for further education and help through the selection process it involves.

Yes, it’s the school’s job

Someone might argue that my list of requirements for a well-rounded educational offer crosses the boundaries of what schools should consider their duties — or be allowed to do. I disagree. As long as an effort is done in making sure things don’t go too far (as in, teachers pushing their ideological perspectives on their students), it would be, in my opinion, a highly desirable curriculum.

These specifications, that on one side seem (at least to me) justifiable by sheer good sense, don’t come out of the blue. Points 4 and 5, among the other things, are designed to deal with the needs of building up emotionally literate individuals and trying to curb the young people mental health emergency that seems to be overwhelming British universities, just as an example I’m a witness of. Point 6 draws, for instance, from the severe complications we’re facing in this post-truth era . Both point 5 and 6 attempt to tackle the problem of cultural segregation that is so painfully topical in this age of mass immigration and home-bred terrorism.

To people contesting that it should be the families’ prerogative to educate young people on these sensitive subjects, I reply that not always families are capable, or willing (if even present) to carry such a task. There needs to be a way that is independent of teenagers’ background to reach them. The challenge is that so far most institutions have showed to be incapable of forming competent enough staff to take care of such arduous issues.

Some of the mistakes

One common approach, especially in the private sector, is to focus too prominently on college preparation. This is perfectly understandable considering the unbelievable level of competitiveness that characterizes college admission nowadays. Unfortunately, this may not appropriately fulfill the previously outlined requirements, and thus be detrimental to a proper schooling, aimed at the education of functional and satisfied citizens.

An even worse example is provided by those public school systems in which an initial desire to test the effectiveness of teaching and the performance of students, brought about the noxious tendency of mainly preparing them to score well in standardized tests. This results in a dull, fruitless, and alienating style of teaching, that’s not likely to reach any of the goals. This despite, possibly, high scores on the tests, as those will hardly capture a broad spectrum of the educational reality. Sometimes this is also due to a too narrow set of desired requirements, besides obvious problems in the implementation of tests as multiple-choice questions.

I’ll now spend some time talking about the situation in Italy, that I know well, as I’ve been studying there until college. Italian schools are a nice example of everything you should avoid when devising an educational strategy. Firstly, because they are firmly anchored to an excessively (but proudly) traditional and conservative style of teaching, that has become anachronistic. Secondly, because they manage to frustrate even the potential advantages of the aforementioned. It’s probably appropriate to elaborate on this (hopefully you’ll excuse my digression: this article is especially targeted at my compatriots).

Patching Italian schools

Another disclaimer: my analysis pertains to Italian ‘Licei’, and not vocational or technical schools, which are in fact fairly popular.

Giving up on the isolation of disciplines

The virtuous-as-always Scandinavian countries are experimenting with a purely multidisciplinary approach. The advantages are countless: among them, more engaging curricula and supposedly way deeper learning, as we learn and remember by building (neural) connections and there’s no better way than approaching the same topic from different perspectives. Italy’s take is quite the opposite, and in my knowledge it’s the current mainstream approach in the western world: subjects are rigidly comparmentalized.

Making curricula flexible

This one is peculiar to Italy. The range of subjects is excellent for the humanities: from philosophy, to history of arts, to ancient Greek literature, depending on the type of school of your choice, you’ll be able to have access to these, by national regulation. The offer for languages and STEM subjects appears a little poorer.

But the overarching problem is that the selection of courses you’ll be allowed to take is absolutely immutable: you’ll be able to choose a type of school with a highly-integrated degree structure (decided nation-wide) as a young and naïve middle-school leaver. You won’t be allowed to tailor your courses to your personal (possibly mutable) inclinations, or to choose a course that steps out of the kind of path you’ve chosen. Sorry, ‘Liceo Scientifico’ students, but a film-making class will remain a wet dream (for some of you). It’s apparent this is in stark contrast with point 3 of the requirements we took a shot at drafting above.

Other high-school systems seem to be better on this respect, with the caveat of being utterly outperformed when it comes to the collection of humanities subjects.

Ephemeral knowledge

What Italy seems to be trying to do, in most of its high-schools (even ‘scientific’ ones), is to form young erudites, well versed in the Classics and in modern literature, with a knack for rhetoric and an elevated style of writing. Their education should be complemented by a more or less thorough scientific preparation.

This manifests itself, on one side, in curricula with too many (easily around 10) and too heavy subjects. On the other side on textbooks that get the scope completely wrong. This is a fragment (roughly translated from Italian) from one of my old textbooks

The idea of history as a training device and as a delight for the reader leads Titus Livius away from Polybius’ “pragmatic” dryness in exposition. His tale, more interesting and richer in nuances, follows the tracks of the “dramatic” historiography by Theopompus and other Hellenistic authors, but avoiding their excesses.

The discourse about Livius’ literary style is elaborated further in the next 7 pages, on the same lines. Then other 7 authors are approached, interspersed among surprisingly accurate accounts of their historical periods.

The fragment above had been highlighted in my book. It was a first-hand book, which means I must have, at some point, (as I was a quite accomplished student), absorbed that fragment and spitted it out when I needed it for a passing grade. I have today, a handul of years later, absolutely no memory of what happened while Livius was alive, nevermind about his style.

The preparation ends up being chiefly mnemonic. You’re just taught too much and on a purely abstract level. If you want students to remember who an author is and how he writes, start from the text, not from its analysis, otherwise it will lack any concrete meaning and be doomed to oblivion. Also, make a selection. There is no way you’re going to be able to teach about every single major author, especially when you’re teaching people that are not in your class by their choice. Give a general idea and the means for curious students to move from it and expand independently what they know.

Look from a distance, than get a close-up

My proposition for a more effective way of giving students a sense on how to navigate the intimidating amount of knowledge our species has produced throughout the millennia, has been inspired by my approach to music.

I’m a little bit of a music enthusiast. I try to keep up with all the new releases and developments. The volume of things to process would be unmanageable though. This is how I handle it

  1. Read a compact and effective (maybe a bit superficial) synopsis trying to summarize what is going on
  2. Choose from it a few diversified and particularly relevant examples and try to get to know them as well as I can. Listen multiple times, both studio and live versions, then get the story behind them
  3. Expand my knowledge by following my individual taste. This entails diving in and listening to a lot of albums, partly being guided by the synopsis, partly following my intuition
  4. Make an effort to make sense of my listenings into the organic framework provided by the synopsis

Italian high schools are taking an intermediate approach. It tries to be systematic and complete, but it fails at both producing durable highly-granular knowledge and in framing it into a more general context that would make students feel more confident about it, and better equipped to plug new information.

It’s not all (not) gold

Another thing peculiar to Italian’s schools are the frequent and unscheduled oral examinations students undergo. This might in theory

  • Force them to always keep up with lessons.
  • Force them to harden their grip on the subject. The dynamicity and flexibility of oral examinations help the teacher find flaws in their preparation, requires them to be able to quickly recall concepts and make connections.
  • Personalize their examination.

In practice, sadly enough, it aggravates the reduction of study to a purely mnemonic exercise, due to a pervasive tendency teachers seem to have of making a poor use of such oral examinations.

Attempting to sum up

In my view high schools are neglecting some crucial objectives in their educational mission. In the execution of the traditional mansions they attempt to carry, out of date methodologies are being utilized. More experimentation should be carried, and more should be done to try to modernize (where modernizing doesn’t merely means blindly applying new technology to old strategies, without appropriate training).

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