5 Ways Schools Can Prepare Students For the World Beyond High School

Dr. Daniel Wesche, Landmark Christian School, Associate Head of School
It may seem obvious, but the point of school isn’t school. The point of school is to prepare students for what comes next. Accordingly, schools all over the world, the good ones at least, are continually asking themselves the question, “How do we better prepare students for what comes next?”
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  1. Build a strong core program.
  2. Create unique programming beyond the core.
  3. Train teachers to be mentors.
  4. Emphasize learning and communication over content coverage and recall.
  5. Grow a community of character.

It may seem obvious, but the point of school isn’t school. The point of school is to prepare students for what comes next. Accordingly, schools all over the world, the good ones at least, are continually asking themselves the question, “How do we better prepare students for what comes next?” 

The answer to this question is a highly contextual, individualized, moving target. It’s highly contextual because the answer what “next” looks like in some parts of the world or in some contexts looks different than in other places. However, with ever-increasing globalization, there are emerging skills of global citizenship that rise to the surface. It is individualized because each individual has a different path, and “next” can look different from person to person. It’s a moving target because technological innovation, global connections, emerging markets, and changing economic structures are constantly reorienting the job market. Not only is “next” something vastly different than “now,” it’s likely vastly different than what we imagine, and it’s open to significant creative influence. Our kids can and will create the future. 

With such ambiguity about the future marketplace, how schools proactively prepare students for a marketplace that can’t even be imagined yet? Should they lean into what has “worked” before? I don’t think so, especially since there are many indications that what has “worked” before has done so not because it was optimal, but rather it has “worked” in spite of itself. In other words, kids were resilient in the face of sub-optimal education.  Go ahead, parents, ask yourself how much of what you learned in high school is part of your current daily experience. Better yet, compare your current work environment and the skills needed for success there to your high school experience.

So what then? How can schools better prepare students for the world beyond high school? 

Here is a 5-fold approach that schools can take to create an experience that impacts students positively for years to come – no matter what the future market holds.

1. Build a strong core program.

Even though this blog is all about doing school differently and emphasizing non-traditional elements in education, the core areas of Mathematics, Language (both native and second languages), Science, and Social Studies, are still fundamental. Certainly, as student-centered, constructivist-oriented educational reformers would point out, core subjects can be taught in a wide variety of methods in order to fully engage student learning. Likewise, these core disciplines can certainly benefit from well thought out integration to avoid the common failing of lack of connection and application between concepts. But still, the core is the core for a reason. If a school does not do a good job of delivering core knowledge, whether in a traditional or a student-centered approach, the school is missing the mark. 

So what should you look for in this regard? Obvious indicators like rankings, college acceptances, and test scores still matter and tell some of the story. Another thing parents should look at is the scope of what is being taught and the track students are on. For example, high schools A and B may have similar SAT scores, but High School A may have the highest levels its math program terminate at AP Calculus. However, High School B might have its highest level track beyond AP Calculus and terminate with Multivariable Calculus II.  Both might be good programs, but the latter may have a stronger core program for some students. Parents should also look at the school’s English Language Arts (ELA) program. Do the readings stimulate deep thought, provoke discussion, lead a student towards a virtuous life, and cultivate a love of learning? Good liberal arts programs do just that, and they form a foundation for lifelong learning

2. Create unique programming beyond the core.

In order to prepare students for what comes next, schools can create programming that allows a student to pursue learning in a focused area and culminating with the application of real-world skills in that field. The possible areas of concentration are incredibly diverse. In my time in schools, I’ve seen concentrations in arts, engineering, business, technology, film, and even aviation. There are multiple benefits to having opportunities like this, two stand out prominently. 

First, students who have a passion or deep interest in an area of study can pursue it early with depth and gusto. Many times I’ve seen students who don’t enjoy “doing school” become energized about their learning in ways they’ve never experienced before. This level of engagement makes for better learning. 

Second, as students gain depth of experience in a field, they encounter problems of increasing depth and complexity. In short, they begin to engage the real-world problems of their field. As these problems are increasingly complex, they demand increasingly complex cognitive skills in order to solve them. Students must learn to think critically, to design well, to ask good questions, to sift information, to work together, to communicate clearly. In short, they actually begin to deploy the skills they learn in a liberal arts education in the real-world setting of a specific field. They learn and apply real-world life skills that ultimately transcend the field of study, but they have a deep level of engagement in a specific field necessary to richly apply these emerging skills. 

3. Train teachers to be mentors.

Everyone can benefit from having a mentor. While traditional direct instruction used to be an efficient way to disseminate information, its efficiency has been significantly outpaced by the digital revolution. Yet, while information is readily available, mentors make the difference.  Mentors can help students navigate the hyper-information age, learning how to ask good questions, test theories, revise ideas, and take measured risks in a safe environment. In short, mentors can help model how to learn, because they’re life-long learners too. 

However, this sort of mentorship needs to be supported by training for the mentor. All schools, beginning in elementary and continuing in middle and high school, need to invest in their teachers, providing training on important skill sets such as problem-based learning, social-emotional development, support for diverse learning needs, Socratic discussion, and many more. The goal is for our mentor teachers and our students to both be growth-minded and to grow together as part of a rich learning community.

4. Emphasize learning and communication over content coverage and recall.

Currently, most seniors graduating from college will not be in a field relating to their major ten years after graduation. That trend only looks like it’s going to increase. In a recent series of interviews with local and international scale business leaders, overwhelmingly, these leaders said that their companies provide ample job-specific training for employees. What they really need are people with good character, good communication skills, the ability to think critically and solve problems, and the ability to learn. Accordingly, one of the best things schools can do for students is to teach them how to learn. 

One of the disruptions of the hyper-information age is that, through the Internet, the average student can access more information in seconds than was available to the most highly trained scholars of previous generations. However, this easy access to information doesn’t supersede the need for trained mentors to come alongside students on their learning journeys. Quite the opposite in fact! It’s not enough for teachers to dispense information and cover content. Rather, teachers must be equipped to help students make multi-disciplinary connections, think critically about the flood of information available, and communicate well in an ever-expanding world. This is what truly separates the novice from the expert. Indeed, novice chess players can quickly learn how to move all the pieces accurately – they can memorize and recall that information. However, experts can anticipate moves, reading the board, executing strategy, and adapting in fluid situations in pursuit of their ultimate goal. So too, expert teachers emphasize building learners rather than regurgitators. 

5. Grow a community of character.

Ultimately, character matters. Students need the character to be resilient in the face of adversity. They need the character to put others first. They need the character to do what’s right even when it’s not easy. They need the character to lead. Granted, there are a lot of value judgments embedded in the previous sentences, but the point of school is to prepare students for what comes next and to shape what comes next. As we can see through a cursory look at history, politics, or religion – character matters for the future. If children are the future, then teachers and parents in partnership are the best hope for the future. Any school worthy of the name will prioritize partnering with its parents in growing a community of character.
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