Transforming high school is hard work. The task can feel overwhelming and it can be hard to figure out exactly where or how to start. For XQ schools, the journey to a new paradigm starts with a set of six design principles. These guide everything from school culture to how students and teachers use technology to the kinds of relationships among staff and with students at the school. Taken together, these principles are the foundation of the transformed high school experience that students need to thrive in school and beyond.
Central to the principles is a commitment to meaningful, engaged learning—which encompasses curriculum, assessment, student agency, and even the structure of the school day. When applied with fidelity, meaningful, engaged learning helps students make connections between disciplines, solve real problems, and grow as learners and people.
Let’s dive into meaningful, engaged learning.
What is meaningful, engaged learning?
When students work together on a documentary addressing gun violence in their community, like this one created by students at Iowa Big in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that’s meaningful, engaged, learning. When educators incorporate real-world, interdisciplinary learning experiences to their practice, they enable students to develop and apply deep content knowledge and complex skills.
XQ schools across the country approach transforming a traditional “factory model” high school education into something that students can drive themselves differently—yet all XQ schools are still grounded by rigorous academic standards and expectations. Creating a sense of belonging is a necessary step in making students feel motivated, welcomed, and valued. A strong sense of community can encourage students to participate in class, determine their level of engagement, and even predict their learning outcomes. By asking students to lead their own learning and make decisions relating to the material they study, how projects are run, and so on, research shows we can boost their engagement and spark their motivation.
Despite what many thought in the past, high school is not too late. New research shows that the human brain continues to develop significantly during the adolescent years. Teenage brains are primed to learn, so let’s make sure high schools are a place where young people can grow into original thinkers, generous collaborators, and learners for life.
Students today need to become learners for life—engaged and practiced as curious, self-directed learners. Research tells us that young people learn through the combination of what they encounter as learners, through curriculum, relationships, and challenges and supports; what they do as learners, through the active commitment of themselves in producing and persevering; and, importantly, how they make meaning of those experiences. Designing learning experiences that connect to student interests powers these elements, builds motivation, and deepens learning and skills for success in life.
“We want students to take what they’re learning in the classroom and see the real-world possibilities. We want them to expand their sense of what they’re capable of accomplishing.”Lillian Hsu, Founding Principal, Latitude High School
Meaningful, engaged learning design includes these features:
What are the types of meaningful, engaged learning?
“Students have been involved at almost every step of the design process. We learned early on that if you make decisions without the voice of your students, you might as well stop where you are.”Sunny Dawn Summers, School Leader, New Harmony High
There are myriad approaches that can help create the conditions for meaningful, engaged learning. Here are a some examples:
What does meaningful, engaged Learning look like in action?
“Círculos is not your typical high school. We get to take dual-enrollment classes. They get difficult, but I like challenging myself. A lot of the partnerships help us to know we have other people out there in the community who are willing to support us or guide us.”Andres Medina, 12th grader, Círculos
XQ schools make meaningful, engaged learning a reality through different approaches. Here are just a few samples.
Rivers and trees and bacteria aren’t just textbook chapters in Nikki Wallace’s environmental science class at Crosstown High. Her students explore local parks and rivers and even their own backyards, taking the lessons they’ve learned in the (virtual) classroom and applying them to the real-world outside their windows. Learn more about her project-based learning lessons that reach far beyond the classroom and find out what students thought about this approach.
Brooklyn LAB student Tiara runs her own modeling agency, where she helps young and aspiring models book assignments with brands like Ultra Mobile and trending Instagram boutiques. In 2021, she applied her skills—and learned new ones—through LAB’s internship program, “Diversified Occupations.” For her internship at a Brooklyn-based digital marketing agency, she created TikTok videos and developed a social media strategy to help the agency attract more Gen Z consumers. Learn more about internships as an approach to meaningful, engaged learning at Brooklyn LAB. Internships like these are a great approach to student-centered learning that leads with student interests!
New Harmony High 11th graders worked with 826 New Orleans on an interdisciplinary storytelling project, with podcasts centered around a memorable time in students’ lives as part of 826 New Orleans’ “Me in This Moment” project. Check out how young writers at New Harmony also used storytelling to explore climate change.
11th graders at Círculos (Santa Ana, CA) created TedTalks highlighting stories of resilience and activism during the COVID-19 pandemic. eEngaginge with Chuck Ware of the UCLA Landscape Architecture program, Circulos students also got the opportunity to learn about the field of landscape architecture and how social justice, equity, public health, community, and mobility can be enhanced through great design. Now that’s interdisciplinary learning in action! In fact, this is just one of the many ways project-based learning powers engagement at Círculos.
Latitude High School 9th grader Ava co-produced a story for KQED’s Youth Takeover about “period poverty” (lack of access to menstrual products). She was originally connected to the local NPR affiliate, KQED, through projects in humanities class, and this year, she will continue working with KQED as a member of their Youth Advisory Board. It’s hard for learning not to be meaningful and engaging when the whole city is your classroom and learning is truly student-centered.
How can educators get started with meaningful, engaged learning?
“Working at Furr High School has made me more aware of environmental justice versus environmental injustice. It’s made me want to be more involved in my own personal community and the school community because of where we are located and how we can help our students be more aware of their own environmental impact.”Sarah Taylor, Science Department Chair, Furr High School
Creating an environment where meaningful, engaged learning happens every day takes intention and planning. Check out how teachers at XQ Schools around the country have embraced this challenge.
As you get started, keep these tips in mind:
Explore the other XQ Design Principles.