There’s a simple lesson most of us learn by the time we hit adolescence: we either like school or we don’t. Sure, some of us are on the fence about school. We can take it or leave it. But most fall into one camp or the other, and it’s not always about the academics. Some of us excel academically and still can’t stand sitting in class, while others don’t get great grades but love school for everything else: the friends, the social scene, and the extracurricular activities.
If you’re a teenager who just doesn’t like school – high grades or low – then the problem may not be you: it may be the school.
Now before you go jumping to conclusions like:
See! That’s what I’ve been saying all along. My school isn’t any good.
It’s just a stupid robot factory!
That’s not what we’re saying at all.
You Can Find Your Place
What we’re saying is this: the school you’re in right now might not be a good match for your natural strengths, your personality, or your learning style. Reminder: since this article is geared toward teenagers, we’re not talking about early education. A mismatch during elementary and middle school can have bad consequences, of course, but during these years, a significant mismatch is easy to identify. Parents can spot a bad fit right away, and typically have plenty of time to change course, find a school or teacher that’s a good fit, and get you in an environment where you learn the basic academic and social skills necessary to prepare you for the next stage in your journey: high school.
Most teenagers know the the moment they walk in the front door of their high school whether they’re going to love it or hate it. If you love your high school, stop reading – this article is not for you. If you feel trapped and completely out of place, then read on – you might learn something new.
Teens: You Have Options
An article published recently in Getting Smarter, a website dedicated to reporting on cutting-edge trends in education, discusses several approaches to high-school education that don’t look anything close to what you may think of as traditional. The article identifies several types of schools across the country that focus on project-based learning over old-school academics:
Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools are the definition of student-centered education. In a BPL school, you identify your interests and connect them to real world challenges. Teachers and staff help you frame questions, such as “How can I help make solar power affordable for everyone?” Then they find you internships with local businesses and arrange for you to spend half your time off school grounds, working in your chosen field of interest. Imagine being in a school where, instead of asking “How can I get these kids to pass a standardized test?” teachers pose these questions to guide your education:
Do I know about my students’ individual interests and talents?
Do I help my students understand how learning contributes to our community and the world?
Can my students learn things in an order that fits their own learning style(s)?
Do my students have opportunities to tinker and make guesses?
Do my students have real choices about what, when and how to learn and demonstrate their abilities?
Game-Based Learning Schools
Game-based schools take advantage of an innate human quality students have that persists from childhood through adulthood and beyond: the desire to play games. This type of learning embraces your imagination, stimulates your curiosity, and directs the boundless energy and excitement that comes from pursuing subjects you love. Schools like Quest To Learn in New York organize your learning around seven core principles:
- You participate in every aspect of your education, which creates a sense of ownership, belonging and community.
- Teachers continually ask you to push yourself. They present problems with solutions just beyond your reach, which forces you to use all your personal resources to gain new knowledge that truly interests you.
- Learn by doing. All learning is active and experience-based. You form questions and test your answers by rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty, and earning everything you learn.
- Immediate feedback. Teachers let you know how you’re doing every day. No waiting for tests to be graded or mid-term or end-of-term report cards: you always know where you stand.
- Failure is growth. Each unsuccessful attempt at solving a problem is called an iteration, which has a traditional meaning – a repetition of a mathematical procedure that gets you closer to a solution – and a newer meaning – a new version of a piece of computer hardware of software. With every iteration, you get that much closer to your solution, so failure becomes success.
- Everything is connected. You share your work and new knowledge with peers, groups, and networks of like-minded communities.
- Learning feels like play. Classroom and education experiences are creative, inspiring, and give you energy. You look forward to picking up where you left off every day. And you actually want to stay late and finish your projects.
Design-based schools like the Nueva School, based in San Mateo, California, model themselves on the lean, creative, bold approach common to many 21st century tech start-up and the research/product development departments of major corporations and universities. Their innovative approach earned them three US Department of Education Blue Ribbon Awards, countless education grants, and recognition as a leader in project-based, interdisciplinary education. Their longevity and success is proof models of education considered alternative are more than passing fads: they’re the future. The Nueva School has been open since 1967, and serves as a model for schools around the country interested in incorporating Design Thinking into their curricula.
Digital Creation and Collaborative Schools
Schools like Bergen Tech in Hackensack, New Jersey are similar to Design Thinking schools like the Nueva School, but are more career-oriented. In a school like Bergen Tech, you choose accelerated projects directly relevant to your academic interests and skills. Your school finds industry partners to give your work both a home and a place to develop. It’s like working in a research and development lab, and your work product may even make it to market. Schools focus on six disciplines:
- Business and Finance
- Medical Science
- Computer Science
- Culinary Arts
- Fine and Performing Arts
This approach to learning is like vocational school on rocket-fuel. Rather than focusing on letter grades on a piece of paper, schools like Bergen Tech define success through measure you can see and touch. It may be a new iPhone app, a new piece of hardware, or a challenging musical performance: you get to decide.
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Schools
One thing that’s missing in most schools in the U.S. is the social and emotional component of your development. Schools focus so much on the outcome – test scores, getting into college, etc. – that the human element is virtually non-existent. SEL schools recognize a genuine emotional connection to work and learning, combined with the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively, are essential skills in the 21st century workplace. Schools like Calumet New Tech High School in Gary, Indiana, use Project-Based Learning exclusively. In this type of school, you’ll participate in around fifteen significant projects per year. Your end-of-project presentations are evaluated by the following criteria:
- Knowledge and Thinking
- Written Communication
- Oral Communication
- Personal Commitment
- Collaborative Skills
What’s interesting about Calumet is that from the outside, it looks like any other school. Classes contain about 30-35 students per teacher (usually with an assistant) and instructional time is identical to a typical public school. It’s what they do with the time and space that matters: teachers and students don’t waste a moment. They pick practical projects relevant to learning objectives, structure their time effectively, and achieve outcomes that would turn most schools green with envy.
The Perfect Time to Think About Changing Schools
Summer is right around the corner.
If you’re one of those students we mentioned above – one who simply does not like school – then we recommend exploring alternative options for next year. Never get good grades? Don’t let that deter you. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. It probably means you haven’t found the right combination of teaching/leadership, educational philosophy, and subject matter to pique your interest. Every human alive has a spark of genius within. You can find yours. Always get good grades but school bores you to tears?
Don’t throw up your hands and walk away.
Don’t grind your teeth and suffer in silence.
There’s a good chance you can find a school near you that’s willing and able to meet you where you are and can’t wait to welcome someone with your special brand of intelligence, ingenuity, and potential. Finally, when you talk to your parents about a Project-Based Learning school, be ready to give them statistics to back up your goals. Which will be easy, because every school we mention above boasts graduation rates far above the national average, impressive college acceptance numbers, and prepares you to join the industry of your choosing as soon as you’re ready to take the plunge into full-on adulthood.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.