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Deeper Learning and the Future of High School

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This post is by Monica Martinez, Chief School Support Officer, and Carri Schneider, Senior Writer/Partner, at XQ Institute.Follow us @DrMonie, @CarriSchneider, and @XQAmerica.

Created in partnership with Purdue University, business leaders, and industry partners, Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) in Indianapolis is preparing students for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future. Design thinking and rigorous project-based learning replace the traditional slate of 50-minute, stand-alone courses. Learning is organized instead around six interdisciplinary challenges focusing on authentic problems like sustainability, public transportation, conservation, and more. This year's partners included the Indianapolis Zoo, Subaru, Fair Oaks Farm, the Indy Fuel Hockey Team, IndyStar Newspaper, and the City of Indianapolis. Each challenge takes students through a project cycle of researching the problem, designing solutions, using technology for collaboration and creation, building prototypes and pitching their ideas to the industry partner. 

Iowa BIG is unleashing the talents of young people as creators, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Students don't sit in classrooms separated by subject. They master academic content through real community projects, problems, and opportunities. Students choose from a deep pool of 100+ community-based projects or create a project of their own. Students have advised city officials on how to improve their use of social media, created a dance therapy curriculum that promotes inclusion for people with special needs, investigated the use of drones for agriculture, drafted a plan to redevelop an abandoned meatpacking property for recreation, researched local water quality, produced an award-winning documentary film, and more--all while mastering rigorous academic standards.

The Bartleby Program at Elizabethton High School in rural Tennessee was originally created by a team of 23 students. Guided by three teachers, they used their sociology class to research the history of public high school in America in order to craft a plan for a new student-centered high school. Elizabethton High School piloted the students' plan by creating the Bartleby Program, which offered two courses in 2017-18: one on community improvement and one on entrepreneurship. Projects included an augmented-reality version of a historic downtown walking tour, a teen support group that establishes a safe space for students, a new shelter and comprehensive clean-up and mapping effort along the Appalachian Trail, a series of murals to improve the appearance of alleyways, and a reading program in partnership with the local elementary school. To gain a spot in the entrepreneurship class, students had to pitch a business idea and each was eligible for $500 in seed money to start their business. A Bartleby student, one of 300 participating students from eight counties, won $1,000 in First Tennessee Development District's Shark Tank with her idea to start a delivery service of farm-fresh, locally-grown foods to customers' homes. Because the pilot courses were such a success, the district is now expanding the program to reach all high school students with a Bartleby Diploma Seal.

Washington Leadership Academy in D.C. believes students are creators, not just consumers of technology. Students at WLA take rigorous core classes, enriched by real-world experiences and access to experts, as well as student-selected projects and electives--all combined with the latest in technology and innovation. All WLA students take Computer Science and get hands-on experience with emerging technology. In the state-of-the-art Makerspace, students learn development, graphic design and hardware engineering. In fact, around 10 percent of students already have external clients for website or VR development.

These approaches are all so different, but they have two key things in common. They're among the18 XQ Schoolson a journey to rethinking high school. And they each understand the importance of engaging students in authentic learning experiences to master academic content, solve complex problems and apply what they've learned across the curriculum.

A Call to Rethink High School

In 2015, the XQ Institute issued an open call inviting communities across the nation to design new high school models. Seven hundred teams of more than 10,000 people across all 50 states submitted their ideas. From those, 18 XQ Schools were awarded grants to bring their ideas to life.

Each of the 18 high schools is on a journey to develop students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for their future. In their pursuit of the XQ Learner Goals, teams designed schools that reflected the research and insights made publicly available in the XQ Knowledge Modules that were informed their own core beliefs about how to create or redesign a high school to serve the unique needs of their communities.

Although the schools are very different in their approaches to teaching and learning, common themes among them have enormous potential as proof points for high school innovation. These themes--the XQ Design Principles--provide a powerful framework for school design in the XQ cohort and beyond. Taken together, the XQ Design Principles form a set of high-level design specs for transformational change.

Teaching for Deeper Learning

XQ defines Teaching for Deeper Learning, one of six principles, as innovative approaches to curriculum and teaching that use real-world, interdisciplinary learning experiences to enable students to develop and apply deep content knowledge and complex skills. 

There are currently nine XQ schools that served students in 2017-18, and seven more will open this fall. Their commitment to deeper learning looks different depending on the unique way each school approaches teaching and learning--including design thinking, project-based learning, place-based learning, or a combination of all three.

Círculos in Santa Ana Unified School District, where over 90 percent of students live in poverty, will break down the barrier to access and opportunity in Orange County. Círculosdefines student success broadly, aiming to graduate students who are "communicative, creative, critical, capable, curious, and courageous." They believe that setting students up to thrive in college, career, and beyond requires learning experiences that enable students to develop knowledge, skills and these traits. Two major place-based partnerships are fully underway to realize these goals: one with the Heritage Museum of Orange County, which will offer learning experiences related to urban farming and sustainability (including the opportunity to teach younger students as museum docents), and one with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, to engage students in community art projects and art history.

New Orleans-based New Harmony High will also leverage their local environment. NHH students will address challenges facing the Gulf Coast and the world as a result of the impact of sea level rise including environmental, social and physical impacts. This won't happen within the four walls of a high school building. Students will be out in the field learning alongside experts, scientists and community partners through labs and hands-on experiences.

Michigan's Grand Rapids Public Museum High School will apply a similar approach to deeper learning by leveraging the entire community as a classroom. This unique combination of place-based learning and academic rigor will inspire creative thinkers and problem solvers equipped to shape the future and serve as an active source of civic renewal in one of America's fastest growing cities. With the broader goal of civic engagement and community stewardship, students will choose projects that contribute to the improvement of the community. There is a major revitalization of the Grand River that will take place over the next five to 10 years that will provide many opportunities for students in STEM, history, art, and more. 

Innovation for Equity

There's growing awareness that to succeed in college, career, and life, all students need foundational content knowledge and more. They need to understand how it all connects and how to apply it. They need opportunities to collaborate and to manage short and long-term projects. They need supportive relationships with adults, so they are empowered to follow their curiosities and inspired to find purpose in their work. XQ is on a mission to inspire and support the transformation of high school so all students have these opportunities. 

We are grateful to stand alongside a chorus of passionate changemakers who are doubling down on equity and innovation in service of students. We hope you'll join us in following along and learning from the communities across America that are bringing forth new ways to reimagine our high school system so that every student has an opportunity to learn deeply and graduate ready to take advantage of all the future has to offer.

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