January 29, 2020

OPINION: The need for depth over breadth

“High schoolers are really jacks of all trade, masters of none, ” Shamus Miller ’17 recently observed to me. Miller’s remark could not have seemed more accurate to me, especially as I bounced from history to biology to English. However, there is one discrepancy with this assessment of high school in that students are expected to be masters of all their trades, expected not just by teachers, but more so by peers, parents, and worst of all, themselves.

This pressure to excel in math, science, English, history, and everything in between puts an enormous and unprecedented amount of stress on students. It leads many of students to take on an almost unrealistic amount of work between high level classes and a wide array of extracurricular activities. Not only do students pressure themselves to take diverse classes and activities, but also to excel in them. Balancing time among at least four major subjects of homework, jobs, and social stress leaves students without any free time to pursue their own interests or hobbies.

This has created one of the largest problems facing today’s youth: an unpreparedness to tackle the world outside of high school and pursue a career in which they are interested. According to University of La Verne, nationally 50-70% of students change their majors before graduating– some even changing up to three times. Today’s youth enter into the post-high-school world without a clear focus of what they wish to study. In an age where college tuition has reached an astronomical level, students must make the most out of their time at the school to take the classes of a subject that stimulate them most and prepare them for a career, and students must begin narrowing their interests in a certain subject starting in high school in order to enter college with a passion for a particular discipline.

While it is necessary for students need to take a wide array of classes to experiment in subjects to decide what they enjoy, there needs to be support for students to pursue their passions. Miller’s own experience serves as a perfect example of the currently flawed system that is not conducive to students pursuing their interests in depth.

Miller, who hopes to pursue foreign policy and international relations, took a history elective that discussed international politics, and he ultimately dropped it because the sixth major was too much of a strain in addition to the work of his other required classes. “I was up until one o’clock every night for a while until I adjusted my course load,” he said. “Once I realized that taking the extra class at the honors level was doing more harm on my stress-levels and sleep schedule than the good it was doing for any college application or GPA boost, [I dropped].”

It is a shame that the current system discourages students like Miller from taking the classes that stimulate them most while instead they take classes that, in Miller’s case classes like biology or pre-calculus, may not benefit them in their overall careers as much as other classes more relevant to their interests.

This does not intend in any way to de-value the importance of any particular classes. Every student should exit high school with a fundamental understanding of math, literature, grammar, science, history, and a language. The key word here, however, is  “fundamental”. At an honors level, students, teachers, and parents hold an underlying assumption that the student will begin to become a “master” of the subject, as Miller put it. Yet the problem begins when a student is in multiple honors classes, as most students are at the high school, for they are expected to be a master of a number of subjects. While it should follow that with higher level classes students dedicate more thought and time to the homework, the opposite seems to happen; the more work students have, the more they rush through their assignments not giving the work the thought and detail it deserves.

While it appears the solution of this is simple– take fewer honors classes– the reality of the matter is not simple. Not only are students with high grades tracked into honors classes, but they are put there because the alternatives, being in a ACP or CP level class, are far below their level. For a high achieving student, the work of an ACP class is far below the skills and content they are capable of. Thus they are left with the decision between taking a class that expects them to reach a deep understanding of the subject, with extensive homework and out of class work, or taking a class that is unstimulating.

Thus, I propose that the high school tackle this issue by finding a happy middle ground. There must be a way to encourage students to pursue their passions in school while still striving for a basic understanding of the core subjects of school. Addressing this issue could take on a number of forms.

Different subjects could coordinate their projects and intense work weeks. That is to say, there could be designated weeks for more in depth focus in a certain subject, and these weeks would alternate. For example, there could be the English focus week, with light homework in the other subjects, and heavier English projects that would allow students more time to delve deeper into their books or papers and dedicate more thought and time to their writing and analysis. This could then be followed by a math week, where the other classes now give lighter homework and students have more time to focus on their math concepts and do longer, more thought provoking math work, and the cycle would continue accordingly. Additionally, the school could re-evaluate level assignments and offer classes that still provide the higher level learning available in honors classes, with a more realistic approach to workload and rigor.

This is simply the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of a brainstorm process, a spark of a conversation that must happen at the high school in order to start focusing on depth of understanding instead of a breadth of classes.   

(Olivia Gieger ’17, Associate Editor)

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