By the time we’re teenagers, most of us know whether we like school or not. Some of us may be on the fence, true: we can take it or leave it. But most fall into one camp or the other. We love it or we hate it. And it’s not always about grades. Some “A” students abhor sitting still in a classroom and want to be anywhere but school. Other students might not get all As but love school for everything else it provides for them: the friends, the social scene, and all the extracurricular activities.
If you’re a teenager who doesn’t like school – high grades or low – then the problem may not be you.
The problem might be the school.
Don’t misunderstand us: we’re not saying school is bad, or a waste of time, or anything close to that.
We’re saying the school you attend now might not be a good match for you. It may not be a good fit for your innate abilities, your character, or the way you learn. If you love your high school, stop reading – this article is not for you. If you feel trapped, alone, and completely out of place, then read on – you might learn something that can change the next few years of your life.
High Schools: New Options For Teens
Getting Smart, a website dedicated to reporting on cutting-edge trends in education, recently published a great article about non-traditional approaches to high-school education. It discusses details about several types of schools across the country that focus on project-based learning as an alternative to traditional academics:
Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools define student-centered education. In a BPL school, students identify their interests and connect them to real-world challenges. Teachers and staff help frame questions, such as “How can I help make solar power affordable for everyone?” Then they find students internships with local businesses and arrange for students to spend half their time away from the classroom, working in their chosen field of interest.
Imagine being in a school where teachers pose the following questions to guide your education:
What do I know about my students’ individual interests and talents?
How can I help my students understand how learning contributes to our community and the world?
Do I teach my students in a way that fits their learning style?
Do my students have opportunities to tinker and make guesses?
Can my students make 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: the love of playing games. This approach to learning embraces imagination and stimulates curiosity. It harnesses the boundless energy and excitement that comes when students pursue subjects they love. Schools like Quest To Learn in New York organize their curriculum around seven core principles:
- Students participate in every aspect of their education, which creates a sense of ownership, belonging and community.
- Teachers continually ask students to push themselves. They present problems with solutions that are just beyond reach, which forces students to use all their personal resources to gain new knowledge that truly interests them.
- Learn by doing. All learning is active and experience based. Students form questions and test answers by rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty, and earning everything they learn.
- Immediate feedback. Teachers let the student know how they’re doing every day. No waiting for tests to be graded or mid-term or end-of-term report cards: students always know where they 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 one closer to a solution – and a newer meaning – a new version of a piece of computer hardware or software. With every iteration, students get that much closer to a solution. Therefore, failures aren’t failures, they’re successes.
- Everything is connected. Students share 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 students energy. They look forward to picking up where they left off every day and actually want to stay late and finish projects. All-nighters aren’t miserable: they’re fun.
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-ups 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 are 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, students choose accelerated projects directly relevant to their academic interests and skills. The school finds industry partners to give student work both a home and a place to develop. It’s like working in a research and development lab – and student work product sometimes even makes it to market.
These schools focus on six areas:
- Business and Finance
- Medical Science
- Computer Science
- Culinary Arts
- Fine and Performing Arts
These are like vocational schools on rocket-fuel. Rather than focusing on letter grades on a piece of paper, schools like Bergen Tech define success through measures students can see and touch. It may be a new iPhone app, a new piece of hardware, or a challenging musical performance: they get to decide, and they get feedback from real people working in their chosen discipline.
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Schools
Most school curricula in the U.S. lack an organized, integrated social and emotional component. 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, students participate in around fifteen significant projects per year. 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
The next school year is right around the corner.
If you’re one of the students we mentioned above – one who simply does not like school – we recommend exploring alternative options for next year.
Don’t get good grades?
That’s okay – 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.
Get good grades but think school is boring?
Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. And please, don’t drop out. You don’t have to grind your teeth and suffer in silence, either. 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 meet someone with your special brand of intelligence, ingenuity, and potential.
One last thing: 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 join the workforce.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.