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Beyond the Horizon: Looking at the Future of Secondary Education

Across the nation, high school leaders are embracing new modes of learning – and teaching – as they plan for the next generation of students. Where do they see secondary education decades from now, and how will they get there? What are some of the impending challenges and opportunities? To find out, we asked SLUH Principal Fr. Ian Gibbons, SJ and several alumni who are secondary education leaders throughout the country.

Here’s what they had to say...

Q&A WITH EXPERT PANEL

Jeff Bell '96
Head of School, Beacon Academy (Chicago)

Fr. Ian Gibbons, SJ
Principal, SLUH

Ian Mulligan ‘02
Principal, Vianney

Matt Paradise ‘04
Asst. Principal, Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver

David Sorkin ‘96
Asst. Principal, Seton Catholic Prep in Phoenix

Ryan Williamson '01
Asst. Girls Division Head - Regis Jesuit High School in Denver


How are students learning – and teachers teaching – differently than in the past? What does this mean for education in the coming years?

IG: Many of the previous assumptions about secondary education have fallen away due to the advent of rapid access to technology and information. Students don’t need to “go” to find information; it can come to them. The veracity and helpfulness of this information, however, is critical. Teachers have become closer to learning coaches than content distributors, helping students gather, process, analyze and distill information into powerful resources.  Student roles have morphed into those of data miners and critical thinking processors. Data access, analytical skills, technological acumen and global mindsets are the “reading, writing and arithmetic” of the next decade.

JB: Teachers are much more cognizant of and sensitive to learning differences, and students are much more willing to ask for the accommodations that they need in order to learn more effectively. Consequently, classrooms and learning environments are more collaborative than in the past. Students and teachers partner in covering content and on skills acquisition, rather than students passively receiving information as was more common in the past. Additionally, the use of technology as a learning tool has evened the playing field so that a broader range of students can find academic success. In other words, you don’t have to be a certain kind of learner to do well in school. You simply have to be open to learning and put the time in to do it. This shift makes learning more accessible and results in more engaged students. The challenge for the future is finding the kinds of teachers who are willing to work in this more dynamic environment rather than the static one that has been more pervasive in schools in the past. 

RW: Students are not learning differently than they ever have—we all learn by doing. What teachers are doing better now is recognizing that fact and intentionally giving students more opportunities to practice the things we really want them to do. Particularly at Jesuit schools, that means giving students more occasion to work together to solve real, justice-oriented problems. Education will continue to shift away from an emphasis on the content (the nouns) to a focus on the skills (the verbs) that we hope our students pursue: collaborating, fighting for justice and standing with the poor and marginalized.

MP: Students are learning by doing and by creating more than ever. Teachers are no longer simply conduits of information. Instead, teachers create engaging learning and assessment experiences through which students, coupled with their own experiences of the world, construct meaning. Differentiated spaces for collaboration and increased support for instructional technology will foster student and teacher creativity. In coming years, it will be necessary to capture students’ imagination in a more digitally connected world. Technology will facilitate faster and tighter collaboration and feedback loops for both teachers and students. Within this progress, we will be called to discern more intentionally how to instill our students with the belief that we are created by and loved by God. 

IM: The past decade has been ripe with research in the field of neuroscience. This knowledge has given us a deeper understanding of how our brains learn and, hopefully, provides insight to educators and schools on how they should be teaching. At the same time, technology has provided the opportunity for students to think more critically in the classroom than ever before. A student’s analysis of a major historical event in today’s classroom can be much richer in content and information because of technology. The future of education will continue to focus on transferable thinking skills learned in the classroom, such as innovation, rather than a need for students to memorize facts that they can access through their devices.

Many private schools struggle with attracting a diverse student population. How can they address this in the future?

IG: Jesuit schools have to be welcoming places for all of society. The Jesuit mission is the salvation of souls, all souls. This means our schools should be serving a population that represents the global reality as found in that locale. SLUH is a Jesuit school founded for the leadership development of young men in St. Louis, and we will work with any adolescent boy who has the intellectual and spiritual background to succeed. This means that we have to create the structures to help underprivileged middle school students learn about SLUH and understand how we can support their development toward the capacity to thrive at our school. Outreach, middle school programs and financial aid are all critical pieces to recruiting a diverse student population.

JB: It starts with the hiring process. Ethnically and racially diverse students are more comfortable attending a school where the faculty and administration look like them. As such, schools need to meet the challenge of examining their hiring practices and their interview processes to ensure that they are inclusive to a wider range of applicants. Additionally, many private schools rely heavily on word of mouth marketing. While this is an effective tool, it can also perpetuate attracting a certain kind of student population. It is essential that schools broaden their outreach in order to find greater diversity in their student body. This requires an examination of enrollment practices and a closer look at the kinds of school-sponsored events that might attract more diverse families. Many schools still operate on the model that it is incumbent on students and families to “find” them. The growth of the internet can perpetuate this mindset. However, finding (and retaining) diverse families requires a different kind of effort and a clear strategy with goals and deliverables; otherwise, it simply doesn’t become a priority. 

RW: The first thing private schools should do to attract a diverse student population is rigorously examine their own biases and assumptions. Is this a school that appeals to students from diverse backgrounds? Does the curriculum honor diverse voices? Do English classes, for example, read texts written by persons of color? If not, how might that impact a student of color’s experience at the school? In the admissions process, what barriers exist, real or perceived, for students trying to find success at the school? Many private schools rightly pride themselves on a tradition of a rigorous academic curriculum and have admissions standards that reflect that. That bias will inherently reward students who come from already-rigorous academic backgrounds and will disadvantage students from low-income schools who may not be as well-prepared. The sense that a private school cannot simultaneously serve both the academically elite, which in America is statistically synonymous with “wealthy,” and those from less privileged backgrounds is a false choice that too often prevents private schools from truly serving a diverse population.

MP: How deep is a school’s desire to attract a more diverse student population? Is the desire rooted in the school’s mission, values and programs? When the desire is authentic, the school must seek out the diversity and create structures within the school to support those diversity goals. Such support could require a shift in school culture to be open to that growth. Courses might be updated to provide students with texts and lessons that represent the diversity of the larger world through which they see themselves represented. Hopefully, the holistic experience expands the worldview of students who have not encountered such diversity before and enables them to see not the “other” but to celebrate the unique gifts each brings to the community.

DS: There are a number of ways to attract diverse populations, but it begins with a belief in the power and strength in diversity. If students from diverse populations do not feel welcome the moment they step on campus, diversity will not be achieved. The welcoming of every student is the responsibility of each faculty member, staff, student and parent. School communities must be attentive and intentional in developing such a culture of welcome, or as Pope Francis might say, “a culture of accompaniment.” Regardless of whether you are discussing socio-economic, ethnic, religious, cultural or linguistic diversity, our Catholic faith has always provided a way to build a common understanding of a life pointed toward Christ, which transcends any moniker of diversity and instead creates unity. Research continues to show the power of Catholic schools to close the achievement gap and help minority and underperforming students from all backgrounds succeed. The more welcoming we are, the better and stronger our schools will be.

How are physical campuses needing to change to meet today’s needs in education? How will they adapt moving forward?

IG: SLUH’s classrooms are about to be transformed by our Go Forth campaign. Project-based learning and transfer goal foci require educational spaces that are collaborative, empowering and flexible. While there are still needs for traditional classrooms and spaces, the 21st century learning process dictates that schedules, resources and teacher-student partnerships drive the assumptions about SLUH’s campus. I came from a school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where space was at an absolute premium. We had a building, not a campus. This didn’t matter, because New York City was our campus. The same holds here at SLUH. St. Louis’s museums, parks, universities, companies and civic institutions are as much our campus as any classroom on Oakland Avenue.

JB: Schools need to focus on creating optimal learning environments for their students. This doesn’t mean finding the latest and greatest technological gadgets. Oftentimes, this method backfires because teachers are resistant or the technologies themselves are untested in education. When I talk about learning environments, I mean more basic things like furniture, lighting and space design. Sometimes it’s not about putting up the next amazing building, but rather being intentional about creating the space where students feel comfortable learning. If you have to sit in uncomfortable chairs all day, you are going to learn less. If an air conditioner is blowing so loudly that you can’t hear the teacher, you are going to miss some key content. If the space isn’t thoughtfully designed, students (and teachers) won’t want to be in it. These more cost-effective measures usually pay greater dividends for both teachers and students.  

RW: As classrooms continue to emphasize collaboration and interdisciplinary learning, schools need to have spaces that reflect that. In a single class period, students may spend 20 minutes researching a topic on their own, 20 minutes brainstorming with a small group about that same topic, and then 20 minutes presenting their findings to the class. Campuses will need to provide spaces for all those different modalities, spaces that are just as flexible and adaptable as the curricula that teachers are developing.

DS: Physical campuses need to adapt mostly in the classroom and common spaces. Within the classroom, flexible/movable seating allows for individual, paired and group work. Spaces for creative collaboration are also necessary. Common spaces such as cafeterias and quads also need to have spaces for collaboration and comfort. Beyond this, I believe it is critical to develop policies and expectations that encourage community during common times. Students are inundated with technology, which can have isolating effects. While technology has a role, we also need to teach students how to maintain a human connection with those around them. For instance, Seton has a policy that no devices are allowed in the quad or cafeteria during break or lunch to encourage community and conversation. Students are welcome to access their computer, but they can only do so in the library. 

IM: Most of the physical changes I’ve noticed recently have been towards flexible learning spaces. These designs allow teachers to plan more collaborative opportunities for students and mimic a more progressive workspace, which many of today’s students will experience when they begin their careers.

Much has been written about the stress and anxiety uniquely felt by this generation of students. What should parents and schools do in response to these pressures?

IG: The shadow side of information and technology access is the overwhelming grip of possibility. Each year brings a dozen exabytes of new information that is added to millennia of previous knowledge. Audio psychologists calibrate our devices’ pings and prompts, demanding our  attention. Competing data sources and complex realities reveal the scarcity of resources, time and cognitive capacity. At some point, we each hit walls of functionality. These walls are both defense mechanisms and processing gateways. When we shut down to reflect and rest, this leads to progress. When we break down from stress and overwhelmed minds and bodies, this is obviously dangerous. Understanding the somatic and psychological needs of our teenagers is an important first step. Other key pieces are having realistic and meaningful formational goals, providing differentiated approaches to learning, and creating a proactive mindfulness amongst our students. SLUH aspires to teach our young men to learn rather than collect endless streams of data.

RW: The role of schools is to give students opportunities to challenge themselves and to learn resilience, while also being an entirely supportive environment. Schools and parents need to sincerely listen to what our students are telling us and then examine what messages we give them, both explicitly and tacitly. For example, as a teacher I can tell my students, “Don’t worry about your grades, just do your best and focus on learning.” But when the students then see the school give out awards based primarily on grade point average, it’s hard to convince them that grades do not matter. Our schools should be safe places for students to learn how to recognize their own emotions and to learn how to best address their own emotional needs, and that means dedicating resources, especially time, to mental health topics. The more that schools and parents can normalize healthy ways for adolescents to express their emotions and manage stress, the better prepared students will be.

MP: Schools should hire mental health counselors and support adult formation around social emotional learning. Parents should monitor students' social media usage. Schools and parents can increase efforts to teach and model healthy stress management and wellness practices, including balance of school, family, work, screen-time, exercise and diet. 

DS: Students have incredible amounts of pressure placed upon them, and it is up to the schools and parents – working together – to lead the charge in helping students balance their lives. Schools can help by clarifying for parents their expectations of a healthy student-life balance. They can discuss with students and families what academic excellence and achievement means in attempts to temper some unrealistic expectations that families have. Schools also need to provide additional resources regarding student health and wellness. This can come in many forms, but it begins with counselors helping administrators and faculty understand the effects of stress and anxiety. These counseling services must also be extended to the students themselves. Schools should also work to educate parents on the realities of stress and anxiety, and how in their role as parent they can intentionally and unintentionally add to the stress and anxiety. Parents desire so deeply for their child's success, but sometimes that desire is manifest in unhealthy and negative ways. Through such conversations and approaches, we can hopefully begin to turn distress and anxiety to eustress and serenity – a healthy and positive kind of stress and presence that results in higher achievement.

IM: In my 12 years in education, I have noticed a significant change in the stress and anxiety that students experience. Schools and districts have responded by adding more resources, when possible, to support these increased needs by students. We see it is as our job to partner with and educate our students and parents about the potential causes for anxiety and stress. We can offer solutions on ways to change or modify behaviors (e.g., social media use) that are linked to these increases. As a parent of two young children, I already have conversations with them about healthy habits, like eating and exercise, while setting limits on things like screen time. There is no simple fix or solution to share with parents, but I will always encourage parents to talk with their children about anything that can impact them in a harmful way.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges you envision in secondary education in the next few decades?

JB: Although technology is rife with challenges, it also is a powerful learning tool. Students no longer have to go to the library to find basic facts and have access to more information on their devices than any previous generation. It is incumbent upon schools to leverage this opportunity and continually work to create courses and teach skills that optimize this access. The challenge is finding teachers who are willing to experience the changes that we expect out of our students. Good secondary schools will go through significant changes not every 20-25 years as in the past, but closer to every 5 years. It is essential that schools hire faculty and administration who are open to working in a less routinized environment than in previous years. So, in short, the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity isn’t so different from the past: find great people who are passionate about education.

RW: The biggest opportunities for secondary education will come from continuing to adapt our pedagogy and curriculum to best prepare students for a changing world, and Jesuit schools are particularly well-suited to seize that opportunity. Tech companies may want schools to provide them with more workers who can code, but the world really needs more coders who know philosophy, and I feel fortunate to work at a Jesuit school that can combine a broad liberal arts education with a strong foundation in faith. The challenge is to do all this while working with students who are steeped in a culture that favors radicalization over nuance, fear over empathy, and individualism over community. Instead of preparing students to join that world, how can we prepare them to change it?

MP: Technology and virtual reality bring both the biggest opportunities and challenges for us. We should welcome their immersive possibilities for creation and connectedness, and balance them with the sacredness of our humanity. How can we teach and model this balance for our students? How can we responsibly embrace the seemingly limitless power of technology and remain grounded in organic, authentic human relationship? Does the meaning of being human change with these new realities?

DS: The biggest opportunity is that students have the ability to know more than ever with access to far-reaching resources beyond classrooms. They are connected with the world and people around them in ways that were not possible 10 years ago. They bring a broader base of knowledge and in many ways are smarter than ever before. Teachers have new tools to make learning highly individualized with 'just-in-time' learning that can really push students to achieve amazing levels of understanding. The flip side of this coin: although technology is creating a means of connection and access to knowledge, technology also creates isolation and de-humanizes the world. It's very easy to hide behind a cell phone screen and text or post vitriol without regard for the other. The challenge we face is to continue presenting the why of education to our students. Why do we need to continue memorizing and learning about some aspects of life so deeply? Why do we need to study science and math? Why do we need to know literature and art? It's because all of the world is simply a revelation of God. It is through the world that we come to know God, and so all of learning and knowledge points directly back to God. And when students understand that, it provides purpose and meaning to excellence and innovation, and allows people to humanize the world. Incredible advances are happening daily, but we always must remember the people who these advances serve.

IM: In the future, I imagine students and families will have even more choice in what type of education they want, just as they’ve had with the growth of charter schools in the U.S. The choices will expand even further along the lines of more blended options that include more online learning as opposed to classrooms. Keeping up with the demands and attachments to technology will remain a challenge for schools and districts if you consider the costs and addictive nature of it to our students. We are educating students when the exact knowledge and skills necessary for their future are unknown. To me, that will be always be a challenge for schools but is also what makes teaching and school leadership energizing as it continues to adapt and change to meet the needs of the times.




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