Designing a School for Growth

September 29, 2022 | Craig Doerksen


What’s the purpose of school?

What words do teenagers often use to describe learning at school?

  • Stressful
  • Boring
  • Artificial
  • Unhealthy
  • Anxiety-filled
  • Pointless
  • Disengaging
  • Impersonal
  • Ineffective
  • Busy-work

For many students, the school experience checks way too many of those boxes. 

Ever wonder why that is? Is it just inevitable?

The rise of achievement-oriented education

We think the problem has to do with what we’ve come to put at the center of high school programming. What is it? Achievement.

Now, don’t get us wrong — achievement is really important. It is in high school, and it continues to be in careers and society. But there is a difference between real-life achievements and what ‘achievement’ has come to mean in high school.

Many of my fellow Gen-Xers will often note that “when we went to high school,” there wasn’t the same level of stress, competition, and resume-building drama there is today. We had exams, took AP classes and sat SATs. But dentists didn’t bemoan the number of teenagers stress-grinding the enamel off their teeth. Parents didn’t go raging to administrators over a B because it would “ruin his future!” 

What happened?

There are a lot of answers to that — the rise of high-stakes state testing, intensified college application competition (despite shrinking enrollment), helicopter parenting, social media, shrinking middle-class prospects, and the cost of college and the economics of subsidized college loans. 

But one undeniable fact — even when schools are doing the same thing they used to do — is that the experience of students has changed, and it’s definitely not better. As pressure has intensified, the importance of arbitrary measurable achievements has eclipsed the importance of authentic growth. Students have to do all the things they have to do, not because it will help them grow but because they have to accumulate the right signs of achievement. Why is this so bad?  Because teenagers still have a lot of important growing to do.

None of this really makes any sense, and I know few educators who defend it as ideal.  And so the result:  ‘the experience’ of high school any number of the words listed above.

What if we focused on growth?

So, how do we break the disconnect of achievement-oriented education? Simple, yet difficult:

Take “achievement” out of the center of our school design, and replace it with “growth.”

A strange thing happens when we look at the outcomes of a growth-centered program. The words that emerge start to change from the list above, to this one:

  • Personal
  • Interesting
  • Relational
  • Discovery
  • Meaningful
  • A process
  • Achievement

Who wouldn’t want to experience that list?

You noticed that last one. ‘Achievement’ shows up again. It’s true. When students — when human beings — are growing, it leads to higher levels of achievement than if they are simply trying really hard. We all have heard ‘work smarter, not harder.’ But you know what that requires? Growing. One cannot achieve ‘smarter.’ You have to grow in knowledge, understanding, and problem-understanding, among other things, to do so. What high school culture is straining to address is that the conditions for what we call ‘achievement’ is actually hostile to growth. It is a vicious cycle—more stress leads to less capacity, engagement, or purpose, which leads to more stress which leads to… you get the idea. Many of you have seen it first hand.

Putting it all together

So let’s back up and start over. Let’s redesign the school experience for growth.

Redesigning school for growth has resulted in some unique features:

  • Longer class times (but fewer classes per term)
  • Projects with public showcases (instead of exams)
  • Students submitting diverse forms of evidence of learning (instead of standardized ‘assignments’)
  • Grading that reflects what you have learned by the end of the term (instead of an average of what you hadn’t learned along the way)
  • Students occasionally designing whole courses (like our Vienna 1914 class this year combining history, literature, and theater over two terms)
  • Students making messes and failing all the time — because they’re trying new things (without worrying that it will ruin their future!)

So here are a couple of questions:

If you were going to redesign school to maximize growth, what would you do?

If you were going to trust that putting growth first leads to greater achievement, what could you change at your own work?

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.