In Search of the Goldilocks High School

Forbes claims the best high schools have 400–500 students. So how can deeper learning happen at “shopping mall” high schools like mine?

Photo by Aedrian on Unsplash.

To date, some of the most powerful insights I’ve gained as an educator originated from Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s book, In Search of Deeper Learning. Here are just a few of the annotations I jotted down in the margins while reading the text:

  • Balance foundational skills with student-directed learning.
  • Cultivate opportunities for different students to excel in different ways.
  • Create a constructivist atmosphere by co-exploring and co-creating with students.
  • Model natural curiosity, inquiry, and intense effort in pursuit of answers/solutions.
  • Empower students to pose their own questions, conduct their own research, and propose and present their own solutions.

Mehta and Fine, researchers with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, visited public and private high schools across the United States to identify the types of environments that best enable students to access “deeper learning” — opportunities to engage in rigor, take on meaningful apprenticeships, and experience joy. Using both qualitative and quantitative measures, the authors determined that neither project-based learning schools, “no-excuses” schools, International Baccalaureate (IB) schools, or comprehensive schools offered the total package. Instead, the authors discovered that each type of environment contained “pockets” in which students could learn deeply.

Within these “pockets” (which included a high school that displayed student projects in the center of campus, an English class that encouraged students to draw on their understanding of classic texts to answer authentic philosophical questions, and an elective theater program that apprenticed students to experts in lighting, costume design, and stage management), Mehta and Fine found “clear commonalities” that engendered deeper learning:

  • Students self-direct their learning within an environment that normalizes growing from failure.
  • Students know the skills and dispositions they are expected to master and constantly revise their work to demonstrate mastery.
  • Students work alongside an experienced mentor (which can be a teacher or fellow student) within a domain of their choice to create a public product that contributes meaningfully to that domain.

In a recent Forbes article, Tom Vander Ark poses a similar query about the “right” type of high school. The answer, according to Vander Ark, is that the best public and private high schools — the ones that most effectively “support personalization and personal interest” — include grade level cohorts of 100–125 students, a size that allows schools to “maintain an intentional culture” and simultaneously “offer a coherent curriculum.”

For Vander Ark, comprehensive public schools like mine (which currently enrolls 3,500 ninth-twelfth grade students) fail to meet the needs of their students and communities: they privilege affluent students, who are “tracked” into honors classes; they lack a cohesive school culture; they offer a plethora of electives at the expense of sustained programs that foster a sense of community; and they require more time to adjust to changing circumstances.

So what does this mean for teachers like me in “shopping mall” settings? Revisiting Mehta and Fine’s research, I’ve concluded the following:

  • Most schools, regardless of size, have some classes or programs that generate “deep learning.”
  • As educators, our first task is to pinpoint these classes and programs within our own schools and figure out which aspects of these classes and programs empower students to learn deeply (a task that will involve learning from and collaborating with students).
  • Our second task is to empower the leaders of these classes and programs to educate colleagues about their best practices. Speaking of which, here’s a challenge I’d like to throw your way: Rather than bringing leaders to educators so that they can disseminate information in a “traditional” professional development seminar, bring educators to leaders so that they can observe these strategies and techniques firsthand (which can be done physically or virtually, synchronously or asynchronously).

Ultimately, there is no “Goldilocks” high school — a single school or district in which all students are engaged in deeper learning at all times. However, there are schools and districts that are well on their way to getting it “just right” in their particular contexts. Whether your high school is public or private, urban or rural, small or large, or well-resourced or underfunded, you can still apply the takeaways from Mehta and Fine’s research to empower students and teachers to learn more deeply, a goal for which we should all be aiming.

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Rachel Thune Real

Rachel Thune Real

Mrs. Thune (pronounced “tune”). High school English teacher and doctoral candidate.