What Will College Prep Look Like?

It’s great when conversations with colleagues help bring things into focus.  I had two such conversations this week, and the juxtaposition of the two experiences left me thinking about how secondary schools with a strong college prep focus should best prepare students for life after high school.

On Thursday, I attended a dinner where the conversation turned to how schools can support innovation and creativity.  The people in the room were a cross section of the adult community that work hard on behalf of our school: faculty, administrators, parents, and trustees.  It was a spirited conversation, and one colleague offered up that he has often thought about offering a course on entrepreneurship.  His thinking had advanced to the point where he imagined a student taking this course repeatedly throughout her career, and each time, the way in which she was assessed would change.  Initially, she would be graded on simply the volume of ideas she produced.  In a subsequent years, there would be a narrowing of focus until the ideas coalesced around a project worthy of pitching.  I loved imagining the power of a class where students were given the opportunity and mentoring to generate intellectual property.  Moreover, I was struck by how a course like this might be one of those experiences that changes a student’s life.

With this conversation and idea still kicking around my head, a different conversation at a different event offered me the chance to hear about the daughter of a colleague and her experience in a local high school’s vocational program.  Before settling on a major, her daughter had the opportunity to do a 2 hour sampling in each of the 17 specialties, ranging from culinary arts, biotechnology, or painting and design.  During this trial period, her daughter came home each day having made something, done something, and learned something demonstrable.  The product of the day’s learning was there for all to see.

So what to make of these conversations?  Well, for starters I work at and believe in a liberal arts education.  However, I also see the sands blowing quickly away from the transfer of traditional knowledge from student to teacher toward the teachers and students partnering to create learning opportunities where the students drive the outcomes and have a strong voice in their design.  We are in a transitional phase in this evolution, mostly due to the fact that schools like mine still operate in world where standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and SAT II carry great weight.  And yet these outside institutions are feeling the pressure, most notably the College Board, which has set out to revise a number of the AP curricula.  Time spent looking at the websites of various independent schools shows that there are major shifts happening as schools examine how to educate students outside the bounds of standardized results.  Student research, experiential and service learning, and immersion programs are part of the norm, and schools that do not have these programs are quickly becoming the outliers.

Schools are now confronting the reality that they need to provide learning opportunities that look different than in previous years.  Courses that stretch our catalogs and established norms are critical to doing what is in the best interests of students.  And while our schools have a different mission than the vocational high school of my colleague’s daughter, it’s important that students have the opportunity to create and see learning in a relevant context.  In these ways, schools will offer more opportunities to change students lives and make the learning tangible.

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