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Multiple Pathways: Bringing School to Life

By Jeannie Oakes & Marisa Saunders — July 20, 2009 5 min read
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For all the rhetoric in education about “preparing students for the 21st century,” today’s schools are excruciatingly slow to leave the 20th. For a hundred years, our high school structures and practices have consisted of discrete courses divided into six or so time periods and confined to classrooms isolated from the outside world. That intellectual and experiential isolation was not optimal in the last century, nor is it today, and it will serve even less well in the future.

There are places, however, where this picture is changing. Consider the following vignettes.

What distinguishes multiple-pathways schools is that they emphasize and extend student-adult relationships as a way of weaving exemplary practices into a coherent school reform.”

Students in a San Diego 11th grade U.S. history class are comparing the environmental policies of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama. At hand in the classroom is Mr. Obama’s Omnibus Public Land Management Act, but this is no rote lesson on “how a bill becomes a law.” The students care about the topic, and they want to understand how public policy can advance or fail to advance our stewardship of public lands. In their examination, the students use their questions about and knowledge of history, politics, environmental conservation, social responsibility, science, media, the dynamics of social change, and much more.

For the past six months, these students at San Diego’s School of Digital Media and Design have worked on projects aimed at focusing the public’s attention on protecting the world’s oceans. The projects, in turn, have given focus to their own study of science and social science, which has provided the information they need to form and support their “message.” This iterative process—question, learn, revise, ask more questions—replicates real-world problem-solving, and differs from schools’ more typical linear, learn-and-then-be-tested formats.

The projects culminate in an exhibition of logos and campaign slogans (accompanied by industry-standard posters, brochures, buttons, and bumper stickers) that the students and their various teams support with the science and social science arguments that responsible conservation requires. They present their work to parents, community members, and a real-world client—an international nonprofit grassroots organization that will use the student products in its environment campaigns.

Five hundred miles north, at Sacramento, Calif.’s New Technology High School, another class of 11th graders investigates the use of methanol and ethanol to generate a cost-effective, environmentally friendly fuel. Student teams develop cost analyses and do research on pollution generated by using these fuel alternatives. They then present to their “client” the mathematics and chemistry supporting their proposals. With the knowledge, curiosity, and commitment they have gained, many of the students press ahead with their interest to start a “green” campaign in their school and community.

These two California high schools are among of a growing number nationwide exploring a “multiple pathways” approach to their curricula. The core elements of multiple pathways, and the learning principles that support them, include rigorous coursework infused with practical applications, high academic expectations, and detracking. These and other curricular, structural, and school culture elements have long been recognized as having merit in efforts to enhance student motivation and learning. What distinguishes multiple-pathways schools, however, is that they emphasize and extend student-adult relationships—both within the school and outside of it, with members of the larger community—as a way of weaving exemplary practices into a coherent school reform.

Often, these relationships are formalized through mentorships, internships, apprenticeships, or job-shadowing programs. The school day and its structure are designed to accommodate both the curriculum and these meaningful human interactions that are missing from many school design schemes. Theme-based academies, small schools, flexible scheduling, and off-campus learning are employed, but they are not reform ends in themselves. Rather, multiple-pathways schools select from these and other structural tools to become settings for developing relationships that complement students’ interests, and their eagerness to produce knowledge as well as acquire it.

Whether the relationships occur in communities or real-world simulations in the classroom depends on the unique circumstances of particular schools: student interests, teachers’ skills and backgrounds, resources, and a host of other idiosyncratic conditions. Thus, lesson plans or “proven models” from another school or district might inform a program’s starting point, but soon will develop in unexpected ways as the school mediates its local circumstances.

One result of these broadened opportunities is that the student-adult relationships and resources cannot be contained within the traditional six-hour instructional day. Of course, a “longer school day” is increasingly put forth as a reform objective. But the actual content of those extra hours (tutoring, “enrichment,” sports, and the like) often breaks abruptly from the core instructional program. In multiple-pathways schools, students’ and adults’ enthusiasm for meaningful work, study, and projects (sometimes more structured, sometimes less) keeps them engaged many hours beyond the “school day.”

As our two examples from California 11th grade classes illustrate, multiple-pathways schools retain the cultural core of traditional disciplines and competencies that make up the academic “capital” associated with college-entrance requirements. The more numerous and diverse the students’ relationships with highly qualified teachers and other adults become, the greater their chances to match and develop their interests, aspirations, and identities with real-world competencies—for jobs, for advanced academics, and for civic participation.

As one teacher at Sacramento’s New Technology High School puts it: “A kid is not just a test score here; we are trying to develop adults.” The school’s curriculum and structure build students’ academic side, but, equally important, says this teacher, they “get a sense of community and good-citizenship skills; they learn collaboration, and what a work ethic really means, … what it means to come in every day and do your best.”

Today’s students will change careers and change jobs within their careers. They will attend postsecondary institutions to receive training or degrees—immediately after high school, at midcareer or midlife, and also at an age when most people now are either ready to retire or disappointed that they can’t. Being able to experience these kinds of high school programs—flexible, intensive, drawing on human interaction and real-world problem-solving, and powered by student initiative and motivation—will help them meet the lifelong learning needs that await them.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Multiple Pathways: Bringing School to Life

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