Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2022 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can states remove policies barriers that are keeping educators from reinventing high schools?” Learn more.
States could make giant strides to reinvent high schools by eliminating Carnegie units and the single content high school courses that are its logical outcome. From 2009 to 2015, I worked with ten Wisconsin high schools that eliminated Carnegie courses altogether. It was a unique moment in my journey of educational change. I would like to share it with the Fordham Institute as evidence of how high school teachers—when given the freedom to build an interdisciplinary curriculum—can kickstart learning anew.
Origins. During the summer of 2009, I spent eight full days with a team of veteran teachers in Appleton, Wisconsin, inventing a new high school for 120 students. Given the permission to innovate, and the expectation to think outside the box, we did just that. The first thing that was jettisoned overboard was the creative straightjacket of Carnegie courses. For several days, we examined how students readily learned differently than the Carnegie structure. We discussed what worked well for learners at the university level, in corporate trainings, during non-profit retreats, and even in kindergarten.
Our solution to this breakup was replacing the Carnegie courses with a new pedagogical menu of interdisciplinary seminars, workshops, capstones, internships, symposiums, institutes, studios, and projects. We named this non-Carnegie manner of teaching and learning in high school the Interdisciplinary Learning Collaborative (ILC). It worked well. Very well. It was contagious. Before we knew it, within a couple years, a cohort of ten Wisconsin high schools had adopted this ILC model. (See a video of ILC in operation.)
For several years, the teachers from these ten schools met often and reflected on the shared ILC work. Ultimately, we realized and agreed that there were seven critical features defining this work.
- Each high school had an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum where academic standards were woven into a menu of seminars, workshops, studios, etc.
- Each school had dedicated teacher collaborative time to create #1 and a boundless professional commitment to team-teach with colleagues.
- Each school implemented flexible scheduling rather than a one-size-fits-all forty-five-minute Carnegie course.
- Each school committed teachers to an advisory model whereby they facilitated fifteen to twenty students connecting to a student’s academic progress, personal agency, and valued high school life beyond the learning.
- Each school created place-based connections in the community to learn from and contribute value back to, whether off-campus learning, field studies, and/or elders and experts as critical mentors.
- Each school had excellent technology and media production capabilities with 24/7 access.
- Each school was 100 to 150 students. Students, faculty and staff were respectful and responsive to each other and the work at hand, whether a stand-alone campus or the wing of a larger high school campus.
The ILC continued to utilize core academic content for high school credit. Rather than a science course that equaled 1.0 credit in Science, the seminars or workshops broke up science academic standards to be mastered in smaller doses. Essentially, an interdisciplinary seminar taught by two or more teachers showed that a student could earn 0.25 history, 0.15 English, and 0.20 art credits in the one seminar. Three examples below are from just one of these ten schools.
Scientific Advancements of Empires (Part 1)
Teacher: Fetting, Krieg, Maloney
(Total credit range: 0.25–0.50)
History: 0.15 (World)
Science: 0.10 (Physics)
(Optional Project Completion) Technology and Engineering: 0–0.25 or Global Leadership: 0–0.25
This seminar is focused on scientific and technological developments in the age of Archimedes and Euclid. The historical emphasis will be on cultural and societal changes in the ancient Greek empire that not only led to a time of great scientific discovery, but also eventually put an end to it for quite some time. There will be a look into some of the inventions and innovations from the time period, with the opportunity to research, design, and construct devices to mimic these ancient inventions.
The Great Bridge
Instructors: Fetting and Lindsey
US History: 0.05
This seminar will be a combination of teacher led instruction, a literature circle, and a hands-on bridge building activity. Additional lab time will be utilized during sixth period in order to construct the final project. The teacher-led instruction will focus on bridge design, the engineering process, forces, and technologies used to analyze designs. The literature circle will read portions of The Great Bridge which is the epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The text not only focuses on the fourteen-year timeframe in which the bridge was constructed, but also the social climate of the time. Bridgebuilder, AutoCad, and MD solids will all be used during the course. Safety glasses will be required. There will be a guest speaker or a community site visit incorporated into the course as well.
Social Studies 0.05
This seminar will look at the history, design, development, and applied scientific principles of hovercraft. Science portions will focus on Newton’s three laws, pressure, and friction. There will also be a historical component looking into the original development of hovercrafts. Students will design and develop two hands-on projects including a small-scale individual hovercraft powered by a balloon and a larger scale team hovercraft with the ability to transport at least one student across the parking lot.
(Note: I have a 350-page collection of seminars, workshops, etc. taught by these ten high schools that is available to download for free at www.jameslewickieducation.com.)
Finally, it was important to have significant life-long learning outcomes that went beyond academic content standards. Teachers would fold into the design of each seminar, workshop, etc. some of the following attributes and qualities as they became relevant to the learning at hand. Over time, this story of achievement was equally as impressive as the academic content and often became the essential touchstone that informed, directed, and inspired a student’s post-secondary choices.
(Life-long learning outcome include: relational awareness, team reflections, autonomy, mutual recognition, action research, community connections, clear roles and responsibilities, trust and respect, teaming dynamics, diversity valued, social awareness, leadership capacity, active listening, decision-making, project management, values activated, professional growth, feedback loops, decision-making processes, continuous improvement, self-improving culture, strategic planning, organizational learning, and celebrations of learning.)
In summary, a state-level policy change removing the century-plus old Carnegie structure would unleash the creative genius of high school faculty!
This would bring about a co-authoring of relevant, timely, and empowered high school curriculum, unique to each high school, yet tethered to time-tested academic standards through an interdisciplinary design.