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Floors Become Ceilings, and Opportunities Become Obstacles

By Keith Boniface

Every traditional high school has a set of requirements that students must meet in order to graduate. Obviously. The purpose of the requirements is to ensure that students are exposed to a variety of disciplines, learn the rigors of in-depth study of a topic, and finish with an education that is well-rounded, practical, and impressive to the admission folks at the university of their choosing.
The core of these requirements consists of courses in the mother tongue, mathematics, science, and often social studies (any combination of the social sciences, usually history and geography etc.). It is rounded out with fine arts, performing arts, physical education and health, a second language, and perhaps a technology course or two.
Choice, in the form of electives, is also very often a part of the framework, albeit a forced one, as the electives are necessarily dictated by school size, faculty talents, and available resources.
Most schools set the baseline course requirements for graduation; you are not limited to them, but at the very least, you must meet this prescribed threshold. Over time, we educators revamp, reshuffle, reorder, rethink, and add, subtract, and reprioritize these minimum graduation requirements, because society is not static. There are newly perceived needs to be met, and we want our young adults to be well prepared for life, and to be successful later on.
What starts as well-intentioned path plotting for all students becomes an exercise in hoop jumping for many of them. Floors become ceilings, and opportunities turn into obstacles. Because we are designing such a broad view of what it means to be well educated, high school is often referred to as an exercise in collecting credits rather than a quest for knowledge.
Students feel as if they are jumping hoops. “You have to take three credits of science,” is commonly said to incoming Grade 8 students. It sounds a lot different than, “You are going deep inside the human cell to find out everything we know about how a cell works.”
The issue with hoop jumping lies in the language we use to motivate learners. When high school is promoted as a chase for credits or a journey to meet minimum requirements, we short-change curiosity, derail passion, and turn a natural love for learning into hurdles.
I propose that we change our language, and with it hopefully the motivation of our students. High schools need to be out of the business of awarding diplomas with the accent on the accumulation of credits, at least figuratively.
In a perfect world, you would achieve your diploma through the demonstration of a set of skills, a product, or performance. Those are the skills of a budding biologist, chemist, historian, writer, or linguist.
They are the duets, monologues, and orations of powerfully written speeches. They are the published works of fiction and non-fiction, documentaries, or physical achievement. They are the evidence of personal responsibility, community awareness, and environmental sensitivity.
In short, they are the things that we strive for as we become well educated.
Mr. Boniface is High School Principal at The American International School of Muscat, Oman.

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07/09/2014 - Walter
Thank you for bringing up this dilemma, which it seems most educators confront at varying points in their career, and which certainly many students experience.

Changing terminology is a good start, and something that we can individually accomplish as teachers, counselors, leaders, without "rocking the boat" too fiercely.

Do our students understand why they must earn/obtain credits in math, the sciences, the humanities, the arts? I think it is the responsibility of all members of the community to guide our students to ask these kinds of questions, to help them gain a greater appreciation of what it is that they are studying and how it fits into their lives and beyond.



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