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Transforming High School by Supporting Student Self-Discovery

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By Matt Doyle, the executive director of iCERP; Craig Gastauer, Ithe internal director of pedagogy, Vista High School; and featuring Vista High School students Debbie Mejia and Emily Truong

The International Center for Educational Research and Practice (iCERP) promotes intersectionality of thought on a global scale. Nothing is more central to this focus than the transformation of the very fabric of education. We are all experiencing a shift in thinking and action around the learning pathways that students are taking; a shift that includes moving to a student-centered approach to education, where the students step away from their traditional role as recipients of core-subject content and move into the driver's seat of their quest to become flexible, nimble thinkers and learners in an increasingly complex society. 

In this series about Vista High School in Southern California, students share their perspective on various elements of the school's transformation. The goal: to hear, firsthand, how these changes are affecting the students' lives as learners and future members of the global workforce. 

This post focuses on creating the conditions for student self-discovery through Challenge-Based Learning (CBL), a critical part of our transition to a learner-centered environment.

Learning Through Self-Discovery

From Craig Gastauer

Vista High School began its transformation from a traditional learning experience to one in which students use their emerging interests and budding passions to co-create learning experiences. The goal is ensuring that the learning is more relevant and meaningful to the students' lives. In order to engage in the rigors of these experiences, we also recognize that students should get to know themselves as learners, what their interests are, and what they may want to do in their future. Through structured self-discovery opportunities and reflection on their process, students become acquainted with how they learn. This insight allows them to focus on their strengths while adding and monitoring strategies to become better learners.  Through this process, we believe that our students will become more prepared to navigate the complexities they face in school as well as those they will encounter after graduation.  Here, two students describe how the process of self-discovery is helping them progress as learners.

Make an Impact  

From Debbie Mejia

The transition from middle school to high school has impacted me immensely: primarily through the program of CBL. I have come to understand that the ways of learning here are completely different from what I have been used to.

Challenge is a class where students learn new approaches to find solutions for real-life problems. In Challenge class, when my class is given a topic, we use the CBL steps: engage, investigate, and act. Challenge class has taught me that I don't just turn in my work and then forget about it. The Challenge course has taught me to use the knowledge I have learned and apply it to solve problems around my school and my community.

One example of a project that enabled me to apply my knowledge and help other people was when I designed a "Student Survival Guide." As a class, we came up with questions that students usually wonder about when they enter high school. I chose my top 10 questions and answered them with the feedback I collected from teachers and upperclassmen. I then made a website to benefit students who have these sorts of questions.

As a freshman, I usually underestimate my ability, but CBL helps me prove that even though high school might be something new to me, I can still make a big impact as a young student.

Build Confidence as a Learner

From Emily Truong

I have always thought that my work habits were adequate and would get me through school, but I have come to a realization that it is not enough. I came to this realization in my Challenge course when I received a grade from my first assignment. I discovered that completed work is not always work of quality; and that quality work in my Challenge course always has connections from school to our society.

As a student who cares deeply about school, our environment, and social climate, I felt elated to be exposed to situations that I can contribute to. In my Challenge course, the teachers do not directly tell you what to do. Instead, teachers offer approaches and then leave you to figure out the situation.

The strategies offered to me and my peers give us various perspectives to approach situations. For example, we've used the 16 Habits of Mind. From the Habits of Mind, I have become more confident and I have positive results from my work. One of the Habits of Mind that I use is thinking flexibly. Thinking flexibly helps me change perspectives and develop options to create and enhance my assignments.

Moreover, my Challenge course provided more ways to work through problems. I personally enjoy and find reliable a strategy from the CBL Guide: engage, investigate, and act. This strategy helps me methodically solve an essential question that connects to the big idea. Although it is time-consuming to use the guide, it is well worth the effort to increase my knowledge.

In one Challenge project, the CBL Guide gave me encouragement to solve this essential question: How does one survive, thrive, and succeed in high school? In order to receive a good grade, I had to get outside my comfort zone and interview my fellow schoolmates (from freshmen to seniors). I generated alternatives to find answers to guiding questions that revolve around the big idea. To find those answers, I came to the people who are in and/or have experienced high school. Each and every person I interviewed helped me build confidence and got me really engaged in the project. The outcome caused me to see that I could complete a regular assignment with great work quality, great work quality not just for my education but also for myself. Now, every day in every class, I reflect and acknowledge that I can create something of such high quality.

Now, I am aware that effort and learning matters, not just grades; especially how effort and learning impacts me and my understanding. That's what the Challenge course is there for: a productive and competent structure to solve real-world challenges. And those real-world challenges won't be solved by grades; instead, they will be fixed by endeavors and determination. I feel secure and prepared for my years of learning to come, and I am strong-willed with my new learning approaches.

Read more student perspectives on the elements of transformation at Vista High School:

 

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