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How to Redesign Your High School? Ask the Experts - Students!

By Brandon Wiley

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama laid out some of his hopes for the American education system.

"Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign American high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy." He went on to suggest that schools willing to develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, especially those focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (often referred to at STEM), will be "rewarded." If schools are really interested in redesigning, I have a simple suggestion: ask the experts. I am not referring to Washington think tanks, multinational publishing conglomerates, school intermediaries, or philanthropic foundations. I'm referring to the students.

As I visit schools around the country, I am always impressed by the diligence and commitment of educators, regardless of where I go. They toil away—planning, teaching, and collaborating—all while serving many stakeholders in the service of creating a better tomorrow. But the truth is, if I really want to know about a school, I mean really, know about what makes it tick, what works and what doesn't work, I ask students. They are the only ones who truly understand what is happening from the bus stop to the lunch room, in the hallways to the classrooms, and how these experiences shape their entry into the global innovation age. Some may be surprised by how well they understand why things work the way they do in schools.

I will argue true school innovation cannot happen without fostering a strong sense of student voice and ownership of learning. This goes far beyond giving students a tacit say in voting for the school mascot, colors, or prom theme. These are not examples of engaging students in determining how they learn. Schools that allow students opportunities to inform what is taught, how they learn, and how they demonstrate their understanding, are the schools that have some of the most innovative learning environments. True school innovation goes beyond a simple redesign of the current brick and mortar structure. Innovation takes into account how and where learning takes place—and turns it on its head. When there's greater ownership and engagement, there's often greater achievement.

This idea of student engagement and voice has played out in numerous schools across the nation. Take for example, the Big Picture Learning model, which is predicated on learning that focuses on students' interests; provides relevant real-world experiences; and allows students ownership of their work and learning. Providing structured opportunities for students to engage in their learning can also be seen in school networks such as Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, and Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network. In all of these cases, student achievement is just as high, if not higher, than similar schools who do not value this type of deeper learning and engagement of students.

While the President's push for STEM in American high schools certainly has merit, I hope the push to redesign schools in this mold is not the only way we think about redesigning schools. We must provide opportunities for student engagement and voice in all schools, regardless of the focus or theme of the school.

My colleague and friend, Angela Maiers, recently wrote a blog post about the importance of passion in our schools. She argues, in fact, that there is a "passion gap" in our schools. She advocates for schools to help students "find the fusion between their aptitude and their passions to live their best lives."

Developing these passions requires students to have the opportunities to explore different fields, apply learning in authentic ways, to explore the interconnected world, and even fail occasionally. It is through these experiences that students develop deeper learning: they become critical thinkers by solving complex problems, communicate effectively while working collaboratively, and they know themselves as learners. For their sake and ours, students must be engaged in the discussion to help policy and school leaders make more informed decisions about how schools operate, what they offer and how they will gauge success. In essence, we are in the relationship business and our number one relationship should be with our customer, the student.

Many students are ready for this call to action, in some cases, more than the adults. If you don't believe me, just ask them. Consider recent high school graduate, Nikhil Goyal. At the age of 17, Nikhil wrote his first book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School, which analyzed the American education system, and in particular, the punitive assessment mentality we have adopted as a nation. Driven by his dissatisfaction as a student, he sought out educational experts from across the country to help inform his thinking and the resulting book has taken a strong stand on what he believes is right and wrong with our educational system. You can agree or disagree with his stance, but one thing you cannot argue with is the fact that as a high school student, he has added significant insight and suggestions to the national discourse about education. Some might try to discredit him and say that he is just an exceptional young man (which no doubt he is) and not typical of students his age. More likely, he is representative of a generation that is ready and willing to take an active role in shaping their world if only given the opportunity.

Nikhil is not alone. Meet Zak Malamed, a freshman at the University of Maryland who has worked collaboratively with high school and college students from across the United States to start a movement. Zak's StuVoice website and weekly Twitter chats and video conversations have engaged students from across the country to discuss issues such as how to make college affordable to all citizens, how to assess students more appropriately, and how to build more equitable school systems. These are meaty topics worthy of researchers, pundits, and well-paid reform experts. Yet, these students are thinking deeply and passionately about these issues. Why? Because these issues impact their lives every single day.

When given a platform, students will rise to the occasion, examine issues deeply, and formulate plausible solutions to problems. As a result of their efforts, Zak and his colleagues have planned the first-ever Student Voice Summit in New York City this April. Sponsored by the Dell Corporation and hosted by the Microsoft offices in New York, students have planned the entire event, including the speakers, the agenda and the messaging. Their goal is simple: raise the collective voices of students everywhere, in the hope that students will have a seat at the table when discussions about education policy and practice take place.

Students are, after all, experts when it comes to understanding what works for them in school.

Brandon Wiley is director of Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network. Follow Brandon and Asia Society on Twitter.

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