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Let's Make High School More Like Kindergarten

by Jessica Hanson

A few months ago I read an excerpt from the newly published book Resisting the Kinder-Race by Christopher P. Brown. Based on his interviews with educators, administrators, policymakers, parents, and students, he advocates for a restoration of joy in early childhood classrooms. He asserts that feelings of delight in learning have been replaced by an overemphasis on children “zooming from skill to skill so that they’re ready for the academic achievement tests they will take continuously throughout their time in school.” As a 20-plus year high school teacher, I have seen firsthand the zooming and standardized testing Brown is concerned about, and I share his worries.

And then a week or so ago I read an interview with cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, who teaches Psychology and the Good Life at Yale and hosts The Happiness Lab podcast. Since 2018 when Santos started teaching the course, she’s seen hundreds of students struggle because they don’t know the meaning of college other than “accolade building” so they can land a job at Google by the time they turn 24. In a class designed to help individuals define for themselves what happiness means and how to live fulfilling lives, these students cannot seem to let go of the idea that there’s one “correct path” they need to find and walk along. If you ask me, that’s tragic since it’s the detours that often help us discover our true selves and make people the most interesting.

So how do we break this treadmill of schooling solely as a means to an end, a cycle of skill acquisition for the purpose of accolade building? How do we create places that “expand children’s learning”? Brown has some suggestions for early childhood education that could just as easily be applied to high school (and likely Santos’ course as well).

  1. Students need to be engaged in activities they find meaningful and that foster their feelings of competence as learners. They need to connect with the why of learning, not just the what.

  2. Teachers and students need to be in positive relationships with one another. Learning is a communal activity, and schools are deeply human places.

  3. Students need to feel ownership of their learning. Education should be something students actively engage in and do for themselves, not something that is done to them.

Does that sound familiar? It does to those of us at HATCH because these solutions echo our beliefs that education should be based on strong relationships between all members of the school community, real-world problem solving, and responsive to the needs of individuals. I’m proud to say we are creating a high school that embraces the hallmarks of successful kindergartens and helps students find meaning in life beyond just scoring a high paying job. When it comes right down to it, maybe we're all trying to help our students become thoughtful, engaged, citizens who work to create a better world.

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