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Reinventing the American High School

By Andrew Bauld on January 11, 2016 3:54 PM
Master's candidate Ben Wild is reimagining high school with his Walkabout Consilient School.

Ben WildSkeptics and experts alike agree that one of the near impossible problems facing education is reimagining what traditional high school looks like for today’s students. Teacher Education Program student Ben Wild hopes to tackle that challenge by reinventing the American high school through the creation of the Walkabout Consilient School.

At last semester’s presentation, “Reinventing the American High School,” Wild painted a distressing picture of the current high school climate, and detailed why a change is needed. 

“Sixty-one percent of [high school] students lack math skills, 62 percent lack reading skills needed for entry-level college,” Wild explained. “Students are disengaged from their school experience because it is out of sync with the real world. The real tragedy is disengagement squanders student potential.”

Wild, executive director of Walkabout Education Foundation (WEF), presented his vision of the new American high school — which is on its way to becoming a reality. His Walkabout Consilient School will feature experiential, self-directed, deeper learning-style pedagogy for students to gain the tools necessary to thrive both in college and in their careers. This includes two one-week backpacking trips and a nine-week college-level career internship when students are seniors. 

Wild’s organization is built upon the experiential education program called Walkabout which began 37 years ago in New York. While a senior in high school, Wild participated in Walkabout’s programs focused on hands-on service learning, career internships, applied academics, and outdoor leadership.

“It rescued my love for learning,” Wild says. “Walkabout taught me how to engage intellectually with the world around me and inspired me to become an educator.”   

Throughout his 15-year career as a graphic designer, managing projects with companies like Pepsi and American Express, Wild continued his relationship with Walkabout, mentoring students, leading backpacking trips, and teaching classes on financial literacy. 

When the original Walkabout was shuttered in 2013 due to the economic recession and other financial constraints, Wild founded WEF with the mission of restoring the program that had driven his educational experience. In the end, the $60,000 raised by WEF kept Walkabout running for the 2013–14 school year. Unfortunately, it was a temporary fix and Walkabout closed permanently in 2014. By this time, however, Wild had decided a change of career was in order; he would become a full-time educator. 

“I founded WEF with the mission of restoring and replicating this extraordinary experience for future generations of students whose enormous potential will go untapped if they remain in traditional schools,” Wild says. “This was my story, and I shudder to think of the person I’d be today if I hadn’t experienced Walkabout.  It set me on the path for a successful life and I know it can do the same for many others.”

Now, Wild and his WEF team are looking to resurrect the program in the form of the Walkabout Consilient School. Through a tight-knit student community and a curriculum that practices the principle of consilience, or the unity of knowledge, Wild believes that his school model will keep students engaged in their own learning. Classes will not only be multidisciplinary, but will also allow students to facilitate their own projects, such as using mathematical and scientific knowledge to help maintain sustainable elements of the school including food and electricity.      

Wild is hoping that this new school will combine modern research with age-old practices. While students will take classes in traditional core curriculum, there will be twists, such as a math course on financial literacy and a Spanish course taught in the local community.  Also, all students will be required to complete service learning and participate in wilderness experiences. 

Wild is working with his team to finalize the vision of the school. They are currently exploring laboratory school options to form a partnership with an existing school of education, and are looking at lower income sections of Westchester County, New York as possible locations.

The team will be entering their plan in XQ: The Super School Project — the initiative spearheaded by Laurene Powell Jobs challenging educators and innovators to pitch plans for redesigning the American high school and which will award a $50 million prize over the next five years to five selected schools.  But their plans extend well beyond the contest.

“We’re currently building out the model for our school and planning for scale,” Wild says.  “We do not want to simply open one school. We know that this idea is bigger than that. We feel that the Walkabout Consilient School can be the new American high school.”

Wild credits the Ed School with helping him to refine his vision and expand the scope of Walkabout.

“Harvard has completely reframed the work that I will do,” Wild says.  “I originally thought that opening a school was the highest goal that I could attain. Now, after learning more about the education sector, the rampant inequity we face as a society, and the need for systemic change, I am now committed to implementing change on a broader level.”

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