Live Now, Die Later
This post is by Tim McNamara, who teaches Humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in California.
"My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time."
--Addie Bundren, in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
Most people would disagree with Addie Burden's father, yet many educators employ similar logic to argue that the best way to prepare secondary students for college is to subject them to boring lectures, require them to write long papers on esoteric topics, demand that they complete assignments for an audience of one, and let them practice their binge drinking.
Perhaps there is another way.
There are schools diametrically opposed to the spirit of my epigraph. They aim to prepare students for their future but also, importantly, invite them to flourish in the present by asking them to address real-world problems and tackle complex lines of inquiry in a multi-disciplinary fashion. Students and adults at these schools work together to ask questions, conduct research, and create beautiful and useful products.
That sounds great, but what if colleges and workplaces do not resemble schools built on real-world inquiry, deep learning, and the creation of beautiful work? Isn't there a certain amount of the distasteful and the picayune that students need to be prepared for? Aren't there things they need to know or know how to do that don't fit into this design?
Yes, perhaps there are useful skills, habits, and capacities (and maybe even academic content knowledge) that don't fit neatly into a project-based approach. However, and happily, this school design does not prevent educators from implementing some surgical interventions to help students learn discrete skills that prepare them for college and career without abandoning the notion that schools can be full of vitality and deep learning and not merely the proving ground for someplace worse.
Here are a couple examples of how this can be done.
The first concerns preparing students for college writing. One of the most popular books used by instructors of first-year college writing courses is Graff and Birkenstein's They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2009). The book focuses on the basic rhetorical moves of academic writing in any discipline--such as summarizing, integrating quotations, and responding to the arguments of others--and then provides templates so students can make these moves themselves.
A high school teacher can teach these moves, and they can be learned in the context of just about any writing assignment. Students can learn to integrate quotations by citing peer comments from a Socratic Seminar, or practice the art of summarizing by writing a precis of a comedy sketch they are using as an exemplar in a theater project. The assignment doesn't need to look like a college assignment. It can be authentic and of any length, but it can still carve out territory for skill development.
A second example comes from the school level. Here in California, all students must pass the high school exit exam. Each year a certain number of students will not pass the math portion. Rather than abandoning inquiry-based math instruction altogether, a deeper learning school might invite these students to participate, for fourteen weeks, in a test prep course in an elective hour apart from the core curriculum. Students build math and test taking skills in the course, but because the test prep instructors attend to class culture, creating a supportive (as opposed to correctional) and reflective environment, the course feels empowering, rather than remedial. The intervention is modest, and it works within the context of a deeper learning school design, rather than subverting it.
The effect of smuggling skill-building and even a bit of the picayune into an environment of open-ended, real-world projects can be hormetic rather than deadly. Students from these deeper learning schools will not only flourish in their future college and career environments, but they will also play a role in transforming them.
Because of the nature of the work they are asked to do, deep learners develop self-directed learning skills, ease and comfort in presenting their work, and a readiness to engage in dialogue with peers and teachers. To elaborate on just one of these examples: college students are in class fewer than half as many hours each week as secondary students, making self-directed learning as important, if not more, than what happens during lectures. And the rapid pace of technological change makes self-directed learning increasingly valuable in the workplace as well.
Those accustomed to deeper learning experiences can flourish, but they can also be the gadflies--always asking why and why not, always pushing peers, researchers, educators, and colleagues to connect what they are doing and learning to their own lived experience--who agitate and bring out the best these institutions have to offer. This way, the "death" some would prepare them for could turn out not to be so bad after all.