Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to attend a panel discussion titled “Rethinking High School”. Hosted by PBS NewsHour and XQ Super School Project, the event brought together students, teachers, and education partners to join in an intimate conversation about the way we think, act, and build our schools in the 21st century.
In the last century we have seen innovation push us from the basic radio to the world of smartphones and apps, from dial up to hide speed internet, from the model T car to the Tesla. And yet, during this span of change and innovation our schools have remained mostly the same. We still use the traditional lecture style model we used 150 years ago. Our buildings and the way we organize our classrooms are still built based on the social, economic, and political landscape of the 19th century. It leaves little room for current forms of dialogue, creativity or hands-on engagement. Even most of the content and the way we teach it have remained largely stagnant. Consequently, many of these traditional systems are no longer adequately or meaningfully prepare students for life after school in the 21st century. And so the question is how can we change our schools and how can we change how we think about schools and how we operate within schools in order to create an environment where students are engaged, excited, and prepared.
The answer obviously is not simple, nor is it assumed that there is only a single answer. But what many of the panelists suggest and what the XQ Project advocates for is that in order to find paths of innovation to push us forward, they need to come from students directly. Student voices need to be included in the conversation at all points of decision making in our schools. There is absolutely no reason why a student who spends 40 hours of their week inside a classroom has zero control or say over the content, the style, the infrastructure, or even the basic interactions that directly affect him or her in said classroom.
Students know what will work best for them. They know how they learn best and they know what they love to learn. The role of the educator isn’t to tell a student how or what to learn. The real role of an educator is to facilitate a student’s ability to explore and engage in his or her own passion. And when a student finds what they are truly passionate about, there needs to be spaces that offer support to build those passions instead of inhibit them. And a large part of that, I think, is allowing students to have the agency, the responsibility, and respectability they deserve. It requires a shift in how we approach our students. To empower and uplift student voices and student stories. It is taking a position that our schools aren’t just expanding knowledge but are also expanding a student’s mind and ability to self-advocate, to critically evaluate systems, and to create change.
This is a mind shift that is reflected in our democracy and in our politics. One of the panelists, Andrew Brennen, a friend of mine, and an incredible education activist put it quite eloquently: “think of schools as incubators for democracy. If we want to build citizens who are engaged, can critically think, and are informed, we need to instill those values from the beginning in schools.” And the way to do that is to listen to student voices. We need to empower those voices. And from a very young age encourage the idea that they have the power, that they have the ability to create the changes the want to see in their schools and that their ideas, their passions, and their forms of learning are valid and should be celebrated. By rethinking schools we can rebuild our democracy.