Here are three conclusions that I have come to based on a survey I gave which aimed to answer the question “How do recent high school graduates perceive high school?” (some caveats, along with the raw data, here):
Respondents’ feelings towards high school are inconsistent.
When asked what the first three words are that come to mind when thinking about high school, 41% of the words were positively connotated (e.g. fun, friends, exciting, informative), 24% were negatively connotated (e.g. boring, isolating, cruel, torture), and 35% had a neutral connotation (e.g. homework, class, rugby, ESL). In terms of this question, as well as viewing the survey as a whole, about a third of respondents gave contradicting answers in their responses. Examples include:
Hard; Easy; Fulfilling; Unnecessary
[What I loved most was] teachers; [the worst thing about school was my] teacher was rude to me
Again, referring to the question that asked what the first three words are that come to mind when thinking about high school, one respondent answered boring, boring, boring; that same person claimed that gym class was the only thing they loved about school. Another respondent, who loved being able to take AP/IB classes and participate in after-school clubs, cited gym class as the thing they most hated about high school. Several people mentioned how unnecessarily long and tedious school is, both in terms of the school day and the full four years, and (I believe related) most valued human relationships and control over the curriculum – even as the second most common thread, it still was only true that 72% of respondents cited friends or teachers as the most valued aspect of their high school experience, and for some of them, those were also their most hated aspect of high school. For example, one respondent cited friends and being social as the aspects of high school that they loved the most, but also resented having to be forced into contact with people: many times you had to be in a group whether or not you fit in as the aspect they hated the most.
Most respondents see more value in human relationships than in curriculum.
Of all the respondents, 72% reported relationships with people (usually friends, sometimes teachers or teachers and friends) as a valuable aspect of high school. One respondent, who described high school as intense, amazing, growth, wrote that she loved:
The opportunity to travel, the chance to make friends from around the world, the people (especially the staff)
although she also admitted:
[What I hated the most about high school was] the ‘culture’ surrounding the things I participated in. When I think about the things I did, it was very inaccessible to many of the students in my high school. A lot of the extracurriculars were expensive, the classes were advertised as elite and for ‘smart kids’. Therefore the representation within these classes was limited. (Mind you, my school was very ‘diverse’)
and two out of three changes she would make are curricular:
First, I would have more practical class options (how to file your taxes, current affairs, math for entrepreneurship etc); Second, I would give more money to the debate program (I think all students should have access to activities that allow them to critically thinking about given subjects and topics from two different perspectives…and clearly articulate this)
Many of the 72% simply wrote friends or teachers as things they loved the most about school. It was fairly typical for respondents to be more critical of the actual school programming, more so than of peer socialization or relationships with teachers:
I didn’t learn practical skills that I could use today. I still don’t really know how to do my taxes.
[I loved] the friendships and relationships I made; [I hated] how unnecessary a lot of [high school is]
A lot of classes that I took were useless to me.
lots of busy work and not much respect for ambition
High school hardly exposed me to any career options, or to what the real world was going to be like. Also, every class lacked substance. I felt like I was taught to memorize and spit back a lot of information, but I was never asked to think about life or values or any other serious conversation. [I hated being] stressed out by things that were really inconsequential.
Respondents generally prefer freedom to choose what to learn and which classes to take, and are happier when they exercise the limited power that they do have over their curriculum.
When asked the question, “Should students have the freedom to decide how to spend their time while in school?”, 78% (n=25) answered yes and 22% (n=7) answered no. Also, respondents who stated or implied that they were in ESL, AP, IB, or explorations programs, which are all classes that have (at least the perception) of student choice, were also more likely to have a favorable view of school, overall (ESL isn’t always “voluntary”, but if you’re responding to this survey in English, my assumption is at some point you wanted to learn English, and would have elected to take ESL classes. I admit this is an inference, not hard data). Many respondents mentioned a lack of curricular choice as a negative aspect of school throughout the survey, not just in the final few questions that directly addressed this topic.
Below is a fairly representative sample of reasons respondents gave for answering no:
A respondent, who revealed that she is going to school to be a teacher, had concerns about social media addiction:
Knowing students at this point in time, even including myself, we are all attached to our phones, laptops or any other device. By giving students the freedom to decide what they do with their time, I won’t deny that some of them would study, but some other, they would be all day in their phones.
Another respondent was more direct:
You go to school to study not to have a good time.
One respondent admitted (which I found incredibly interesting, in light of the over 5,000 hours one spends in high school):
It really doesn’t matter either way.
A fairly representative sample of respondents who answered yes:
teachers should be there to help students navigate school – not to personally drive them through it. Students are fully capable of driving themselves to answers and revelations; they may just need a little push in the right direction.
One respondent, who wrote that being stuck in class was the aspect of high school that she hated the most, that school didn’t prepare her for a good life, and that every year was the same as the last, also said:
Explorations [an off-campus apprenticeship program] senior year in an architecture firm. I worked on one project the whole year with 3 other students. And two of the employees there were our mentors. We then presented our project to a bunch of professionals at the company who critiqued us. It taught me teamwork, presentations skills, and a bit about what I do and don’t enjoy professionally, and also made for good recommendation letters.
[High school] needs to cater more to individual students and their different abilities and ways of learning. For example, I always had good grades in all my classes. I was always in AP and honors and did well. But I skipped classes a lot because being tied down for four years to the same thing was so boring. If I had more of a choice I think I wouldn’t have done that. Skipping class made me feel like I had more control – and I didn’t care that I skipped because I was still able to get the grades I wanted. Some people learn great by reading a book and listening to a teacher and taking an exam, but some students get bored of sitting still and doing the same thing for four years. There should be an option. I could have learned and passed with flying colors everything I did in high school in two years instead of four. The other two years should have been spent with something hands on, more active, and more interesting. It would definitely have done a lot more to help with the real world and college.
High school does not teach enough critical thinking skills – if it did it would have more of an impact on people.
Another student, who had previously described high school as trash and limiting, reported:
I think if we let students explore more via electives at the high school level, it will save them time and money in college
I hated reading in school, but now I LOVE it, books are the only windows into finding a better future. I would have kids read more personal development books and less “literature”. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Cal Newport will have more of an impact at a developmental stage than Shakespeare.
It’s ironic to me that so many respondents found personal relationships with friends the most rewarding part of high school, considering it has been my observation that teachers spend a considerable amount of time and energy keeping students from socializing and instead, focused on the very important task of learning those things that respondents largely found irrelevant.
Perhaps the best way to transform high school into something more universally and consistently valuable would be to allow students to define the terms of their own graduation. The median age of the respondents was 22 years old – enough time had gone by for them to think about the impact of high school, but not so long that they forgot many details. Many of them reflected that control over what goes into their brain and freedom of association with friends and adults would add considerable value to their high school experience, and that the majority of actual instruction is mostly a waste.
A second, more practical option, is described in great detail in the second half of my book. In a nutshell – even in the state of New York, with its draconian public school requirements, it is possible to offer much more freedom and choice to students and staff, while still meeting state and union requirements. It would take considerable trust between administrators, teachers, the school board, and the community, as well as a deeply held belief that the student is the most important aspect of the learning process…but it can be done.