Thursday, June 28, 2012

What High School Students Aren't Learning

Guest post by Melissa Miller
What high school students aren't learning - a guest post by Melissa Miller

First, a confession: although I did spend thirteen whole years in the field, I'm no professional when it comes to K-12.

The only level of education I've been on both sides of was college. In fact, I just finished teaching freshman composition for three years at a large, urban public university in the South. Though I felt strongly for my students and believe in them wholeheartedly as individuals, I think it's fair to admit that the lack of preparedness they evinced was often shocking.

I won't concentrate on the nitty-gritty mechanics of student writing here, although there was always a lot to be desired in that department. Rather, I want to talk broadly applicable abilities I often wished the high school experience had inculcated more in order to prepare my students for college.

The first is making fine distinctions. A lot of the papers I received showed an inability to deal with shades of gray (there are many more than fifty, incidentally). Some of this ability comes with age, of course: when we're young, we're more idealistic and everything is simpler in our heads than it really is, as we soon find out. But some of it can be taught, and this ability to "wallow in complexity," as our textbook put it, is one of the most priceless gifts of a lifestyle that makes enough space for reading and writing.

My students, especially when confronted with "issue"-centered arguments, all too often had crippling difficulties with stepping outside a black and white view of a problem. This can be laid at the feet of our Manichean political culture, to be sure. But the only way to repair this epidemic of simplistic, reactive worldviews is to encourage critical thinking from a young age.

Another major problem I saw was a failure to recognize the raised stakes. One of the saddest aspects of my experience was the prevalence of plagiarism. I remember well the culture of widespread cheating at my own high school, and I'm not going to pretend I was always pure myself in this regard, but as Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

College students are adults, and not only responsible for their own actions, but accountable. There's a reason we (generally) don't try minors as adults. I tried to be frank about cheating, and explain that, while it was merely naughty in childhood, it would cause them serious problems now. I still had to throw the book at a few kids though, and while it was truly painful for me, it will haunt them with practical ramifications. I wish they hadn't needed to learn that the hard way. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Melissa Miller is a cheerleader for online associate degree programs. Not literally, of course (since online schools don't have varsity football), but in the sense that her writings will encourage you to "B-E aggressive" about your education. Throw your questions to

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