Open curriculum could expand student interests

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Max Stahl, staff writer

If only I knew what I wanted. Here I stand at the crossroads, at the precipice of childhood, the years of maturation and uncomfortable physical changes and mixing metaphors. Soon I will have to explain to colleges why they should allow me to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt in order to learn from their professors and in some way contribute to their campuses. And I’m not sure I can.

Colleges look for dedicated students, students who know what they are interested in and commit themselves to the pursuit of those interests. These types of students are rare because, typically, teenagers don’t and shouldn’t yet know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have one’s whole life laid out from age 16, but it is uncommon, and it can often be illusory. A great number of students delude themselves into thinking that they are interested in one field, perhaps due to parental or monetary pressures, only to find several years later that they are unhappy. This sort of commitment is what colleges (albeit not all of them) want, though, so public schools must change their structures in order to allow for more students to discover their passions.

High school students need time to dabble. Two thousand teenagers can’t be expected to know their true callings as early as freshman orientation; there’s too much to discover! High schools, then, should provide their students with opportunities to explore these various fields and shape their educations around their interests. It’s simple probability: students with more numerous and wide-ranging learning options are more likely to find their passions than those with fewer choices. Our school does a good deal to promote course selection based on students’ interests, but it could do more, if it weren’t for the UC and CSU systems’ A-G graduation requirements.

Ironically, colleges — the very institutions that demand (or at least recommend) that their applicants know and follow their aspirations — restrict students’ ability to discover those aspirations. While these graduation requirements force students to try new subjects, they also obligate the students to spend more time in some of those subjects than would be valuable to them. According to our school’s requirements (modeled after the A-G requirements), for example, students must take three years of social studies and three years of math courses, regardless of their interest in those fields or the usefulness of knowledge in those fields. I believe that no knowledge is truly pointless, but if students are uninterested, they will simply forget the material after passing the class. The sheer fact that all students are required to take certain classes, furthermore, makes the the classes less appealing. As Paul Lockhart noted in “A Mathematician’s Lament,” “There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.” Thus, colleges’ graduation requirements are counterproductive. They compel students to fill schedule spaces with classes that would not contribute to their educations as profoundly as other, nonman- datory classes would. To whittle away at what makes each high schooler unique by impos- ing the same course requirements on each one may produce a class of well rounded students who, for at least a short while, have knowledge in a wide swath of fields, but it also hinders another goal of education: to produce individuals who are passionate about learn- ing and passionate about advancing their skills in areas that fascinate them.

What I am advocating — and I understand that in a public school this policy is to a great extent unfeasible — is a more-open curriculum. Students should be required to take at least one or two classes in each subject, such that they gain broader experience and therefore become more aware of their interests, but they should certainly not have to spend three or four years learning (and then quickly forgetting) something they do not like. Students, then, would be freer to take a wider range of electives, as well as more specialized courses in academic fields that interest them. High school wouldn’t just be about preparing for college; it would be enough like college already that when students finally did graduate from high school, they would have a better sense of their passions and be well prepared for higher education.

You may think my ideas are crazy, utterly unworkable. And they are. Within our current system this plan could never work. Colleges want well rounded students — students who, although captivated by one or two things in particular, are proficient in all school subjects. These colleges’ graduation requirements, though, make even a semi-open curriculum impossible: students must complete certain courses at their high schools in order to be considered for admission. Further dashing the open curriculum’s chance of existence is the ease with which unmotivated students could abuse it. Of course, the ideal is that every student would have something to be interested in if the curriculum were more open, but the truth is that many students would simply take easy classes in order to graduate without working hard. The public education system is just not well enough equipped to encourage academic discipline among students with open curricula. For those who seek to continue learning after high school graduation, it seems, they will have to wait until college to receive the education they want.

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