Re-imagining high schools for Subject Lovers

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Fordham’s recent report What Teens Want: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement found that almost all high school students want to do well in school, but that many are motivated differently. More specifically, the nationally representative survey identifies six “engagement profiles,” each constituting 15–19 percent of America’s high school population: Subject Lovers, Emotionals, Hand Raisers, Social Butterflies, Teacher Responders, and Deep Thinkers.

As the report explains, these profiles showcase a student’s dominant, or primary, mode of engagement (not her only mode, of course; students are obviously motivated to learn through multiple channels). Thus no single school-type will optimally engage all six pupils types—nor will one instructional model, strategy, curriculum, or pedagogy. Many traditional, one-size-fits-all public schools, for example, don’t have the resources or expertise to provide tailored classrooms. Therefore a better approach is providing students and families with a wide range of school types or models, so parents and children can find the one that best fits their needs. Or perhaps even a total re-imagination of the public high school, wherein we create curated classrooms and content based in part on how a student is best motivated to learn and excel.

Consider the authors’ characterization of Subject Lovers:

These students generally enjoy school and feel engaged when they perceive what they’re learning to be useful, interesting, and relevant to their daily lives. Compared to their peers, they are more likely to report that academic classes and clubs are their favorite thing about school; to gravitate towards AP, math, science, and technology classes; and are least likely to report being bored in class. They are motivated by learning new and challenging things, and many expect to go on to attend four-year colleges. [See, for example, Table 1.]

A tailored school might challenge these students academically by offering a more personalized high-level program, comprising various Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, and even dual-enrollment opportunities.

Table 1. Subject Lovers are most likely to say that their favorite things about school are academic courses and clubs

Furthermore, knowing the students’ desire to attend college is an excellent opportunity for the school to partner with an external organization that would provide college application and admissions advisory services to students, or create its own in-school counseling program that guides students through these processes.

Pestalozzi International Village, based in the United Kingdom, is a perfect example of a non-profit organization that has a robust U.S. college preparatory program. It partners with a local school to offer IB courses to low-income students, and provides detailed guidance on U.S. colleges. Students go through mock SAT exams and receive feedback on their college application essays; as a result, many go on to attend Ivy League schools and other competitive U.S and European colleges on full scholarships. I myself am a beneficiary of Pestalozzi, having attended its IB program from 2005–07.

The role of the teacher is also crucial to Subject Lovers’ sense of engagement. They appreciate a teacher who is personable and can make content relatable, but these students appear most responsive when educators care and know about the subjects that they teach. To these young scholars, the energy and enthusiasm of a motivated teacher is contagious. A majority of Subject Lovers responded in the survey that they find what they learn in class to be interesting. As one Subject Lover explained in a focus group with the report’s authors, “I love the content…My teacher is engaged, and she’s energetic. She keeps us moving, and it’s very quick paced. It goes by fast, and it challenges me. But I can keep up.”

Teachers might also consider using a problem-based or inquiry-based learning approach because Subject Lovers like to see connections drawn between school and the real world. The project-based learning model at High Tech High, a San Diego charter school, provides those connections to students through excellent hands-on and real-life learning experiences. According to the website, its Urban Re-Farm program requires students “to think deeply about diverse aspects of humans’ relationship with food production, develop and utilize technological skills related to creating a professional publication, employ engineering methods in effective and creative ways, and collaborate with their peers and customers to create innovative, space-specific urban farming systems.”

Though it’s obvious that a school incorporating the above strategies would benefit many students, those whose preferences closely match the school model have the potential to benefit most. We do, however, need further research in this field to provide more conclusive results.

The message to policymakers and implementers is that a one-size-fits-all model of education fails to consider the needs, preferences, and priorities of myriad students. Separating pupils into smaller groups based on what primarily motivates them to learn is a better approach that will maximize the effectiveness of academic models—and can be implemented at the school or classroom level. The onus to re-imagine our schools is on us.