We are at an historically remarkable time. Not only is the Internet challenging the banking model of education that has been with us since colonial times, but most recently, the global pandemic has flagged up many institutionalized issues that no longer can be ignored. We know that education cannot chug along like the steam engine of the 1900s, yet draconian classroom practices persist. At the same time, industries are reinventing themselves, geopolitics are becoming increasingly complex, and the imminent need for climate and social justice grows.
Reconciling the contradictions is a Herculean task but far too consequential and costly not to contemplate. 30 percent of the world's population is affected. Today’s teenagers and young adults are increasingly reporting feeling anxious and stressed. This generation of Greta Thunbergs and Emma Gonzalezes are clamoring for systematic change. Indeed, their values reflect the integrated and inclusive approach that is required for us to move the needle. While we have done some good work to identify 21st-century skill sets, it is at this nexus of knowledge, skills, and values that researchers Susan Drake and Joanne Reid point out that we have "piled it on", overwhelming the system with unrealistic expectations. As such, we have created cognitive dissonance where we profess the values and skills but remain biased to accountability measures that prize high test scores based on knowledge. Fortunately, their research is also antidotal and shows that curricular integrations can synergize these different domains and provide for a more equitable experience for all.
The forces at play here are grabbing the attention of those that are paying attention and we are beginning to see long-awaited, seismic shifts in the world of higher education. The University of California, one of the largest and most reputable higher educational institutions in the world, announced that it will no longer take into account ACT and SATs for admissions or scholarship decisions from 2020 to 2023. Many US colleges reacted to the pandemic by removing testing requirements for applicants. More than 500 colleges signed in August 2020 a statement from the National Association for College Admission Counselling to confirm their commitment to test-optional policies. By going test-optional, college admissions have shifted the emphasis to look more closely at a student’s high school experience - they look at GPA, grade trends and the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum alongside letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, admissions interviews and other factors. According to the New York Times, UCLA saw a 48 percent rise in applications of African Americans last year. This new attitude toward testing is the most recent and biggest domino to fall in a trend toward holistic education.
The Harbour School stands proudly amongst a relatively small number of schools that have for years pushed for progressive education of the whole child, seeking to unlock the best in each child through practices that personalise the learning. THS intentionally took the path less travelled, eschewing rote drills and test prep. Instead, we have taken a broader, holistic approach recognising that students’ social and emotional development is a foundation for academic growth. Our students are recognised as individuals with their own interests and ideas. At the high school, our course catalog is tailored to engage our students’ interests and identities while meeting rigorous academic benchmarks. In addition to standard high school subject offerings of Calculus, Physics, Language Arts and Literacy, interdisciplinary courses designed to engage student interests are on offer. As an example, one of our most popular courses this term is “An Idiot’s Guide to Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse” where students learn how to survive such devastating times through prioritising what humans need to stay alive on an individual and collective level, learning skills such as obtaining clean and safe drinking water, generating power, foraging and growing food as well as to design, build and test their very own defence models to survive a Zombie attack. In “Forensic Psychology”, students learn about the interaction between psychology and the criminal justice system, examining the parts of human behavior that are directly related to the legal process such as eyewitness memory, testimony, jury decision making and criminal behavior.
Such experiences give our students agency in shaping their learning, develops critical thinking skills and prepares them to succeed academically. By linking academic content to the students’ own cultural identities and communities via intentional engagement, they develop a more comprehensive understanding.
In closing, it is worth considering Einstein’s insights as further justification to transcend the knowledge paradigm. "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." These words are prophetic, as today we are literally just one click away from everything known with a Google search. If we continue to recalibrate with skills like creativity and problem solving at the center, it is perhaps not so far-fetched to foresee that we could have a cure for cancer, or homelessness or climate change.
(PS: it is worth mentioning that Einstein, an undisputed genius of the modern world, was known for making simple algebraic errors… costly mistakes on the SATs).