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Why it’s time to rethink the high school curriculum

A new hybrid educational model aims to overhaul the way we think of -- and deliver -- high-school education.

7 min read


Why it’s time to rethink the high school curriculum


After more than 50 million students across the country were forced out of their classrooms this past March because of COVID-19, an uncertainty remains about what education will look like for students this fall. As we face going back to school, administrators, teachers, and families are scrambling to figure out how to keep students safe, overcome potential learning losses, and find the resources to make it all work.

This uncertainty has brought us to a critical juncture in education. The last several months have brought to light many challenges and opportunities in education — some of which were apparent prior to the pandemic, but are now magnified and accelerated. This makes it a good time to truly examine what is working, what is not, and essentially change the way we think about educating our students.

Discussions about how to rethink education have already started taking place at many schools, both public and private. Educators and administrators have been working to deliver new online curricula and programs that meet accreditation requirements and the needs of their students. Many, at the same time, are taking a bigger-picture view of what needs to change in education as a whole.

A New Way of Thinking

Some may ask, “Why would we introduce a new way of teaching high school in the middle of this mess?” The answer is simple: High school curriculum needs integration with real-world application and context, and schools themselves need to better facilitate student engagement with subject matter to encourage critical thinking and problem solving.

As the leaders of two innovative education organizations, we’ve been discussing for some time that we need to give students the critical thinking skills needed for college, and provide them with access to higher education curriculum earlier.

We also need to rethink the “siloing” of subjects. A better approach is to learn through the application of knowledge to real-world situations, where critical thinking transcends subject matter. Subjects need to integrate problem-solving and understanding of real-world contexts into every course, providing students the skills they need to build a foundation for college and career success.

Additionally, high schools need to offer and encourage college-level courses. These courses help students determine what interests them and increase their engagement in the college process earlier. College-level courses advance a student’s college journey and can help reduce the overall cost of higher education. Research also shows that high school students that take college-level courses are more likely to attend college, which is often critical to career success.

As a result of this thinking, we have joined together to develop a transformative four-year program: the Minerva Baccalaureate at Laurel Springs School. This program uniquely combines daily online class time with peers, asynchronous or independent learning, and a proven approach to online learning. Students take core academic courses infused with applied knowledge and thinking skills, facilitated through engaging and rigorous collaborative learning sessions. Assessment will include some traditional elements, but is built around a set of interdisciplinary competencies that are tracked across classes, courses, and years. In their fourth year, students will take the Cornerstone courses from the widely respected Minerva undergraduate program, earning 32 college credits by graduation. Part of this coursework includes a final Capstone project which unifies the lessons from all four courses over both semesters. Notably, the Minerva Baccalaureate program is available to any school, so high school students everywhere have the potential to have a truly transformational educational experience that is relevant to the world in which they live.

Online Learning Is Here to Stay 

Given the current climate, there has been a lot of skepticism about remote education. We have seen successful implementation of online learning for some, while implementation has been challenging for others. So, “why take education online?”

There are a number of reasons. Thirty years of experience at Laurel Springs tells us that when online education is administered correctly, students can thrive in a way that they cannot in a traditional classroom setting. Teaching and engaging students online is much more than adding video conferencing into the mix — it requires a different type of instructional approach and a specific learning platform. When done correctly, it offers tremendous benefits, including:

  1. Stability and quality. In these uncertain times, students and their families need stability and reassurance that they are receiving a quality education. Currently, questions are being posed about if, or when, students and teachers can go back into physical classrooms. Some schools are opting to reopen their campuses full time, while others are considering a hybrid approach, and some are going fully remote. Done well, online instruction offers an excellent learning experience and continuity of programming, no matter where students are located.   
  2. Learning adapted to student needs. Online programs can also be more versatile and personalized to student needs. For some students, a completely self-driven, asynchronous experience that allows them to learn at their own pace is ideal, while others may be interested in a more collaborative learning experience with their peers, or may be looking for a combination of both. Online learning allows for this flexibility and level of personalization, as well as the ability to have more options for core courses and languages.
  3. Easy access for students. Online learning provides the convenience of engaging anytime, from anywhere. For students pursuing outside interests or careers, this learning approach is ideal. For those choosing a fully synchronous experience, or one that is hybrid, online classes provide flexibility as well, limiting the amount of live class time. Importantly, online learning also enables continuity and isn’t affected by issues, such as pandemics, natural disaster, injuries or other challenges that may make in-person learning impossible.
  4. Students own their learning. One of the distinct  benefits of online learning is that it encourages — and demands — student agency and inquiry, leading to growth, mastery, purpose and independence. Successful online learners also typically acquire exceptional self-advocacy skills. The sense of autonomy that online programs elicit helps students become engaged, lifelong learners.

The combination of critical thinking skills and problem solving, access to college-level courses, and the flexibility that an online program delivers, offers a transformational educational experience, that we believe should be available to all high school students.

A New Path Forward 

We hope other schools will join us in empowering students to graduate from high school with the skills, knowledge and experience that will prepare and direct them in their broader educational and career goals. Today, there is a vital need for education options that ensure students are fully equipped to succeed in a global environment. We are excited about what the Minerva Baccalaureate program can provide and look forward to what the future holds for our students and education as a whole.

Peter Robertson is president of The Laurel Springs School. He has 30 years of leadership expertise in primary and secondary education, focused on teaching and learning, technology & data science, policy, and business operations. He began his career as a high school history and government teacher and has devoted most of his professional life to defining and supporting quality instruction through standards-based curriculum, aligned assessment, technology resources and professional development.

Ben Nelson is founder, chairman and CEO of Minerva. He is a visionary with an ambition to reinvent higher education. Nelson’s passion was first sparked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he received a B.S. in Economics. After creating a blueprint for curricular reform in his first year of school, Nelson went on to become the chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, a pedagogical think tank that is the oldest and only non-elected student government body at the University of Pennsylvania.


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