College, high school, and a fulfilled life

I’m a big fan of Denise Pope and the work that she and her colleagues are doing at Challenge Success. As they write on their website,

we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners. We partner with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning. After all, success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.

(Yeah, yeah, I know: Read that paragraph and think about Lori Loughlin, Rick Singer, and Operation Varsity Blues. The word “ethical” pops out at me.)

In fact, I was reading Denise Pope’s March 22 column in the Wall Street Journal (sorry – it’s now behind a pay wall) when my son and I were on a college trip, and I was most taken by information that Pope reported from the Gallup-Purdue Index, of six “college experiences that have an impact on how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they are thriving in life after college:”

  1. Take a course with a professor that makes learning exciting.
  2. Work with professors that care about students personally.
  3. Find a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals.
  4. Work on a project across several semesters.
  5. Participate in an internship that applies classroom learning.
  6. Be active in extracurricular activities.

As I read this list, I got to thinking about three things: The college search that we were conducting with our son; my own experiences in college; and what the above experiences might say about high school.

There will be a longer post about our college search process and its relation to these qualities, but I’ve been impressed with several of the schools we have visited and their focus on the liberal arts and the individualized attention that’s given to students. Yes, these colleges were about academics and learning, but they were also about relationships, and it seems obvious that places with that kind of focus would be more apt to fulfill the top three experiences listed above. They have intentionally built their programs so that students and faculty interact. (BTW, do you know Colleges That Change Lives?)

My own college tenure (which I’ve written about before) had several of the above qualities/experiences; I had professors who made learning exciting, and I spent the winter and spring of my junior year student-teaching at the local high school, applying what I was learning in my education classes. But as I think back on my college at that time, it was not really built with the student in mind; faculty did not ignore us, and I did close work with several professors, but faculty members were ultimately there to work on their research. As Professor Peter Bien provocatively said in his address to my incoming class of freshmen,

Typically, the high school teacher does not aspire to advance the subject he teaches, nor is he expected to. His professional pride comes from the level of competence to which he can bring his students, and (though he may not realize this) from the degree to which he convinces his students to accept certain modes of thought and behavior approved by the society at large. Those are not [a college faculty’s] purposes…Our professional pride may come secondarily from the level of competence to which we happen to bring you, but it comes primarily from our contribution, however small, to the advancement of our fields of study.

So how do the above six experiences translate to the typical high school experience? Well, I’d say that #2 and #3 seem like no-brainers – work with teachers that care about students personally and find a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals – but I’d argue that the large comprehensive high school, its class size of 30+, and its manic daily schedule make it operationally difficult for teachers to have close relationships with students that the research has shown to be helpful for learning. I admire teachers who ensure that they know their students well and work to develop relationships with them, even as they rush off to prep for another class or get ready for an evening of essay grading. I also admire schools that don’t take this relationship development for granted and develop systems – see this relationship mapping strategy – to ensure that every kid in the building has an adult that cares for him or her.

I also think that high school students get engaged in extracurricular stuff – see #6 above – because they like the faculty sponsor and/or were even asked by that sponsor to get involved – and extracurricular activities are another way for students and teachers to interact and get to know each other. I think back to the school newspaper that I oversaw for a couple of years when I was teaching and the young people who met in my classroom to write, edit, and argue over articles; I’m close to several of them even now, some 22 years later.

Those six experiences from the Gallup poll seem very much applicable to not just college but also high school. If research tells us that they help make “thriving” students after college, how can we ensure that they’re part of any student’s high school tenure too?

The first pic came from here. The second pic from here. Got the last photo here.

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