What happens if you go to a wonderfully innovative project-based learning high school but then end up at a traditional industrial age state University with massive lectures filled with hundreds of students? Will you be prepared for the expectations and challenges of that University? That was one of the questions explored in an August, 2015 article in US News and World Report. It is a fair and realistic question. As the article points out, some students find themselves ill-prepared to function in such a traditional context, but plenty figure it out over the first year. In fact, a challenging transition from a more traditional high school to a large state University can be equally shocking for some students. High school and college are different, so it is expected that there will be challenges and the need to adapt to an alien system. Interestingly though, some of the same students who struggled initially because of being in an alternative school also managed to explain, understand and value that they received a high school education that prepared them for the life beyond college.
Years ago I taught in an independent high school where students went to daily chapel. Some chapel speakers resonated with students, but as guest pastors came in from churches around the area, there were a few speakers who didn’t connect as well. At times, it seemed a bit like they were just using the high school chapel as a dry run for their Sunday sermon. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear rumblings about how boring chapel was on a given day. Maybe I agreed with them on some days, but one time I decided to put a playful spin on it by setting up the following scenario.
Imagine that you wake up in the middle of a large room with no doors or obvious ways out. The only recognizable features or items were a series of holes in the floor along with a large, several hundred page manual titled, How to Get Out of a Room with No Doors? Suddenly water starts to come out of the holes in the floor. What do you do?
It didn’t take long for most students to opt for picking up the manual. Then I add a simple twist. Imagine that it is an incredibly boring book, what do you do now? Some knew where I was going with this scenario, so they tried to come up with a creative alternative. Regardless, almost everyone said that they would keep reading. In conclusion, I said, “So, thank God for boring chapel speakers. They are preparing us to survive future life-threatening circumstances. In fact, maybe we should make more parts of school equally boring and less engaging so that we can better prepare you for those future circumstances. In fact, it might even be malpractice if I were to make the learning too engaging, too motivating, too interesting, too relevant, too valuable.”
I was mostly joking with them, but there is a valuable lesson here. Some of the most important knowledge comes in boring wrapping. Those able to persist through the boredom long enough to unwrap the wonderful treasure inside are better off than those who just throw the gift away. Persisting through the less pleasant parts of work has its benefits.
There is a realism that informs such an approach to education as well. Elementary school prepares people for high school. High school prepares people for college. College prepares people for life after college…or sometimes just for more college. This is what we call schooling. Much of what happens in some schools is about preparing people to be successful in schooling contexts. That is why grade point averages in high school tend to be better indicators for success in college than test scores on the ACT or SAT. Getting a high GPA is about learning how to play the game of school well. Oftentimes, it isn’t about your aptitude, knowledge or skill as much as it is about functioning in an academic culture.
When we look at the alternative education movement, we often see schools focused less on schooling and more on learning, personal formation, and the desire to nurture things like character, curiosity, collaboration, agency, along with the competence and confidence to thrive as a self-directed learner. Few debate the value of these capacities, but there remains a disconnect. As some K-12 schools focus on this, there is need to think about what is next. For some, I expect that college will become one of many viable options. For others, expect to see more higher education institutions following suit with the K-12 alternative education movement. Over the upcoming years we will likely see a growing number of alternative higher education institutions as well as existing institutions with alternative education tracks.
In the meantime, we will continue to see students struggle with strange transitions and disconnects between the methods of K-12 and higher education. I don’t expect us to see K-12 alternative schools back away from their efforts. In fact, I hope that these alternative K-12 schools persists in their efforts because there is something troubling about the idea that we need to make high school less effective in its preparation for life just to accommodate less than ideal circumstances in many higher education institutions.