Our first steps in any direction can set a lifelong course. As a high school teacher, I see that for the many young high school students who aspire to go on to post-secondary education, a traditional school environment does not always provide the kind of experience that matches their interests. Whether it is because class offerings at their school do not include their interests, or because their passions are too focused for the broad curricula of a high school, students sometimes need to tell themselves, “I’ll just have to wait until university to learn about this”.
However, at my school, we take a slightly different approach. Instead of treating some topics as though they are beyond what should or could be learned in the confines of a secondary school, we take the approach that student can be given the chance to teach themselves the skills and knowledge that they need for their future. Our school delivers a program, called the Foundations in Research Course, for upper secondary students to learn how to approach their areas of interest in formal, academically appropriate ways. As the coordinator for this program, I help to ensure that students are guided by experts who can inspire students by sharing their passion for a subject.
The Foundations in Research Course starts by teaching students critical skills in academic research and writing, and then help them to explore their interests through research. Because their effort culminates in a final written project, this means that we support them in learning the writing conventions of the academic discipline in which their research interests fall. This support could be directed towards something as basic as a teaching a discipline-specific academic referencing methodology or more complex, such as interpreting data and making reasoned inferences.
With these skills, our students set out over the course of the better part of the academic year to complete a research paper. Upon completion, students are taught how to present their paper in front of an audience. Once students have the confidence in their own work, they are asked to present their research paper in front of a formal panel, consisting of a group of faculty members from our school, as well as their mentor. It is a rewarding process that encourages students to think carefully about the manner in which they have structured their arguments.
Our approach to this form of self-directed learning is a response to real and expressed needs. Literature emerging from education researchers suggests that instructors at higher education (HE) institutions are finding that many students arrive at university unprepared for classes which expect an independent exploration of topics. One of the reasons that researchers have found for this issue is a lack of literacy skills, including information literacy.
Researchers have spoken with HE instructors, who note that the transition from teacher-centered learning to student-focused learning challenges some students beyond their comfort zone. Teacher-centred instruction consists primarily of traditional lectures, in which instructors break down content for students. Student-centered learning, on the other hand, operates on the premise that students share the focus with teachers, and where communication is reciprocal. It is this latter type of learning that the Foundations in Research course seeks to develop.
In order to facilitate student-centered learning, students at my school are paired with a mentor who is a specialist in their topic. The mentor’s help ensures that students avoid common pitfalls when conducting their research, and answering questions that students have about the content. To the fullest extent, the Foundations in Research course is directed by student interests, with mentors filling a support role as facilitators, rather than fonts of knowledge. Even so, mentors are an essential part of the process.
Typically, faculty members at NOVA International Schools full the role of mentor. However, they can also be someone outside of the immediate school community. In fact, because we value the communities of shared interest, the Foundations in Research program regularly seeks out industry professionals and academics in an attempt to connect our students with mentors who share their interests. Oftentimes, the connections that we facilitate amount to nothing more complex than a series of emails and notes of a student’s research. However, for the students involved, these emails and feedback amount to a kind of encouragement and support that is hard to find for many aspiring young people.
For the professionals who become involved in the process of mentoring, the experience is always a rewarding one. I receive enthusiastic comments every year mentors who have never, in their own mind, played the role of “educator” before. For this reason, and because I believe that students benefit from meeting the people engaged in the work that students aspire to do, I encourage every talented professional I meet to take part in the program as a mentor.
I encourage anyone reading this article to reach out to me or to NOVA International Schools if you would be open to volunteering your time to engage high school students in your profession.
*Fanetti, S., Bushrow, K., & DeWeese, D. (2010). Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations. The English Journal, 99(4), 77-83.
Author: Daniel is an instructor at NOVA International Schools. He majored in Political Science, with minors in Philosophy and Political Science. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Toronto in 2015 before coming to Skopje to work at NOVA International Schools. He works as a high school educator teaching a Social Science class to grade 9 and 10 students, as well as administering a research and writing program for grade 11 and 12 students. Daniel is currently pursuing an MSc in Educational Leadership and Management, with a focus on distributed learning.