In an unusual new book, education scholars Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine explain how American high school students can become deep learners — mastering, enjoying and getting creative with their subjects. It sounds wonderful, but I wonder if teenagers are capable of that.
I was a good student at my public high school. I had one B and the rest A’s. You didn’t ask, but my SAT score was 1468. But that mix of mastery, enjoyment and creativity still wasn’t there. It didn’t happen in college, either, except for the many hours I spent at the campus newspaper. Not until graduate school, writing a long paper on American press coverage of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, did I hit that academic sweet spot.
In their book “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School,” Mehta and Fine’s dream of 16-year-olds becoming happy scholars may be too optimistic. But they hooked me in one way. I have never seen the potential for an extracurricular approach to learning written about with such clarity and insight.
Could it be a path to school reform? Maybe. It will need brave and resilient educators to get past widespread resistance in our crusty high schools.
The biggest hurdle, usually ignored in soaring calls for change, is that school can be tedious. Mark Bauerlein of Emory University says the best approach is to confess to students that some stuff will be a slog. Then teach them tricks for coping with boredom. Extracurriculars do that. My coach refused to let me quit the cross-country team when I declared running was dull. I discovered it was better if you talked to your friends while doing it.
Critics say using sports as a model for learning doesn’t work because the clumsy kids get cut. Not necessarily. My coach kept everyone, even us malcontents. John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., won a record 489 football games and four national championships without cutting a soul.
If a school is going to educate everyone, it needs to treat students as if they have something to contribute. As Mehta and Fine note, the best teachers see teenagers “as purposeful, curious, capable beings who have interests that can be developed and who value being treated as responsible people.”
Students have different ways of learning. They will thrive with friendly guidance from more experienced students and adults. Here is the book’s most important sentence: “We cannot lose sight of the fact that adolescents fundamentally are seeking community, people with whom they can both learn and relate.”
Classmates who lacked my grade-grubbing ambitions still showed up to see their friends. Having an emotional connection to a school is a good start, but as the authors say, students must also be allowed to experiment with their own ideas. Trying to be creative will reveal holes in their knowledge, and in turn inspire mastery and spark enjoyment.
I loved courses taught like warm-ups for “Jeopardy!” Mehta and Fine cite one example: a world history course organized as a race “from ancient history to the French Revolution in a single year.” I was thrilled to learn names and dates. What about less dorky kids? Such fact-fests work better, the authors say, if they explore an essential question like “Why do civilizations rise and fall?”
The problem, they concede, is that state school boards and legislatures load up on lists of facts in course standards. They scream if their historical heroes aren’t mentioned in the syllabus. Many states are cutting back on testing, however. With no standardized exam in world history, good teachers could provide some focus.
I remain skeptical that high school students can handle much depth. But I admit I would have liked some International Baccalaureate courses — Mehta and Fine’s favorites — if they had existed then.
Why not organize at least some high school classes like extracurriculars, with fast kids helping slow ones, everyone working to produce something to show the school? That is how I learned my trade in college. They still pay me, and each morning I get up excited, hoping to learn something new.