One Way to Make High School Suck Less

A high school is a kind of medium-security prison in which young people are incarcerated for seven hours a day and given lots of supervision and highly structured schedules in order to get them out of the way and control them while adults go about their business. If adults had to put up with the schedules of high-school students–sit for fifty minutes in class, get up for three minutes and race to another class, sit for another fifty minutes, and so on for seven classes–with twenty minutes for lunch (half of which is spent queued up), and routine refusal of even the right to go to the bathroom–there would be open revolt–revolution. Adults in business training sessions rebel against even a day or two of similar treatment. After a single day like that, they beeline to the hotel bar for a drink and then to their room to collapse from exhaustion. Of course, no one can think carefully about seven different classes in a day, and no one can process what’s dumped on a high-school kid in a given day without any time, during that day, for downtime, regrouping, socializing, and reflection. This ought to be obvious, but people often don’t think at all about the craziness they’ve become used to. They become so inured to quotidian absurdity that they don’t even recognize how loony it is.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I had a student from Finland. She thought our system cruel and insane. In her school back home, students went to a class and then had a leisurely 15 minutes to half an hour to sit with one another in a lounge area to talk, decompress, study, have a snack or a drink, socialize, and prepare. In other words, her school back home treated students like people with human wants and needs and natural ways of functioning, not like prisoners in a model concentration camp. As a result, kids there actually had reason to look forward to their day. They spent less time in class and learned far more.

Having recently taught, I can attest that most high-school students are extremely stressed out. As the end of the year comes, after 160 days like that, as they face exams and high-stakes standardized tests, most of them have become time bombs. And, ofc, we have epidemics of suicide and cutting and depression among teens. It’s no wonder. No one learns well under extremely stressful conditions, and learning should be a joyful experience. It is long past time for the high-school day to be rethought. Our goal should be for kids to look back on this as the most glorious, empowering, delight-full time in their lives.

The first textbook published in America, The New England Primer, contained an alphabet that included this rhyme: “F–The idle fool is whipt in school.” Time to throw over the Puritan legacy. “I had to put up with it, so they should, too,” is not a rational argument. A happy child will be a learning, growing child.

And make no mistake about it: a high-school student is still a child–a toddler in an almost adult body. I wouldn’t say this to them, of course, but it’s true.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here:

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here:

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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