This guest blog is written by Malaina Kapoor, a current high school student who decided to homeschool in order to expand her learning by blending interdisciplinary, real world, and academic-focused learning. Her work has been published by Education Next, The Mercury News, and the Bluefire literary journal.
As I’ve mentioned in my earlier posts, the students I interviewed for my research on innovative high schools noted a number of challenges adapting to non-traditional approaches at their schools. One such challenge is adjusting to new academic norms and expectations. Students at innovative schools are not unique in facing academic challenges upon entering high school. Most students in traditional schools experience an increased academic workload that requires them to develop new study skills and habits. However, the students I interviewed who attend innovative high schools – schools without a standard curriculum, method of assessment, or location – often noted additional academic challenges due to the new educational model at their schools. “[My new school] is very friend-y and discussion-y,” said one rising sophomore. “[It] is much more lax and unorganized.”
Many students I interviewed expressed frustration at poor academic programs at their particular schools. One girl explained that the lack of focus on assessments and retention had led her and her classmates to forget most of the material. Another student explained she felt lost and unsure of where she was in her academic journey. “In traditional schools there are clear tracks to follow all the way through senior year.” she said. “In this school, I have no standard to measure up against. I don’t know where I am!”
Some students I interviewed expressed concern over whether their particular innovative schools were preparing them adequately for college. Many traditional schools offer college fairs, counselors, and SAT prep to every student. Some of the newer innovative schools, however, do not have similar or comparable programs.
Many innovative schools claim their students conduct deep dives into subjects they are truly passionate about. At some schools, however, students reported receiving little to no support to do these independent studies. Especially in newer, smaller innovative schools, teachers are positioned as generalists that can coach across a wide array of subjects and topics. This coaching strategy means that in those models there are few teachers with specialized expertise.
Dhirubhai Ambani International School
In contrast to some of the innovative schools where students reported struggling with academic rigor and support, one school stood out to me: the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai, India—a Round Square certified innovative school that is ranked as the number one international school in India according to Education World—is an innovative school that has successfully dealt with the issue of balancing academics and innovation. The Ambani School encourages its students to focus on the world around them through intensive community service programs, and to “deepen their understanding of individual leadership, systemic change and social responsibility.” The school requires students to undertake six month long projects that will make a difference in their communities, such as teaching English to their housekeeping staff, cleaning up beaches, campaigning against sexual and physical abuse, or organizing an annual fundraiser that hosts dozens of NGOs and invites hundreds of underprivileged children. The school also provides opportunities for students to work on interdisciplinary projects focused on real-world topics, ranging from digitization to Indian myths to physiology. Students also take part in extra-curricular activities within the school, such as robotics, Indian dance, Model UN, and hosting a TedX program.
Alongside these projects, The Ambani School ensures that students receive rigorous academic preparation by allowing them to pursue IGCSE and IB curriculums. As a result, the school has been able to maintain a superior academic program and still provide more differentiation and project-based learning than most other schools in India.
Based on my research, I think innovative schools should focus on four main principles.
1. Teaching strategies. Although the teachers at innovative schools may no longer need to deliver daily lectures or grade quizzes, their roles as mentors, project facilitators, and subject experts are instrumental to a well-run innovative school. Technology cannot be relied upon to fill this role—there is still immense value in face-to-face communication. Teachers in an innovative model need to be able to provide:
Teachers may also need to have subject expertise in order to help run a rigorous school. Many innovative schools tend to focus on interdisciplinary projects as a way to cover all subjects, reducing the need for teachers intimately familiar with specific knowledge. In order to be able to fully apply their knowledge and gain a fundamental understanding of each topic, students need teachers by their side explaining formula applications, chemistry principles, or how to write a thesis statement.
Teachers should also be wary of homogenizing or significantly influencing students’ projects. Instead, students should be allowed to follow their interests, and teachers should teach the necessary tools required for projects, such as time management.
2. Time well spent. While advisories and “one on ones” can be useful tools for students, teachers need to ensure the meetings are not just about using educational buzzwords like “social and emotional learning” or “learning from failure” without connecting to students’ personal aspirations and goals. This can create a level of disenchantment among high schoolers who would rather learn something more applicable to their daily lives. An example of a meaningful advisory might focus on understanding world leaders and how to apply their characteristics to students’ own lives and dreams.
3. Graduation requirements. Innovative schools must have a clear idea of the character traits, values, and level of academic proficiency they expect from their graduates, and then translate them into rigorous, meaningful programs and milestones. Schools have a responsibility to cover all subject areas, not just STEM or humanities. Students must have access to specialists in each major subject area. This is something not found in many newer innovative schools. Schools can give their students access to experts by reaching out to the local community—contacting artists, physicians, or historians.
Innovative schools should also be familiar with standards such as the UC, IB, and other state, national, and international programs. Students of innovative schools should at least meet one or more of these requirements as well as provide an extra layer of rigor and relevant, advanced, and interesting courses, project ideas, and seminars. Occasional testing and assessment is necessary in order to keep students on track.
4. Focus on individualized learning. Despite the challenges some students experienced at their schools, almost every student I interviewed spoke about the overwhelming benefits of individualized educational programs. To deviate from the idea of personalized learning would be failing the very people innovative schools set out to help and prepare in the first place.
In my next and final post of this series, I will present findings and recommendations regarding the social aspects of students’ transitions to innovative schools.