How I got through High School as an “Honors Student”

In the United States today, we do a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to education. We argue about what the best solutions are to the problems we see, and we’re also arguing about what the problems are. I try to pay attention to these issues, but frankly, I have very poor perspective on it. Neither my school nor I dealt with significant social issues. I think the quality of my teachers was generally good, and I didn’t really face any major obstacles in finding opportunities in education. And though the life of an GT student seemed pretty easy, there still seems to be a lot of controversy around GT and honors students today.

One particularly interesting blog post I stumbled across recently (though it is somewhat old) discusses a problem with “honors students”. The author (a teacher) taught an intensive summer class where she focused on creative and higher-order thinking. Quickly, the number of students in the class decreased as students found the class too much work, and parents seemed to be focused primarily on the letter grade. The conclusion she comes to is that letter grades and point systems shouldn’t be used.

I myself am not particularly offended by letter grades and standard methods of evaluation. Note that I may be extremely biased based on how they worked out for me, but I wonder if the attention should be focused elsewhere for high-achieving students. My high school experience in-class is pretty unremarkable. Despite being in GT and honors classes, I didn’t think we did that much critical thinking, and that’s mostly fine. I had a particularly good experience with AP English, and that has led me to care enough about critical reading that I’m in a book club now. AP US History and AP US Government went well enough that I can follow politics.

Otherwise, I learned a lot of facts in science and math and such that I formed a strong foundation for the rest of my education. And that didn’t really require a lot of critical thinking. In fact, I generally think of my academic classes in high school similar to General Education Requirements (GERs) from college: they were the generalĀ stuff you needed to take and have breadth in to get by. Since they’re just breadth classes, it’s fine to not think too deeply about them. Students get by, pick up some trivia, and let that become a loose basis for everything else.

That was my experiences with classes in high school, but high school offered tremendous opportunities to me in other ways. Specifically, most of what I learned about creativity, having a growth mindset, developing higher-order thinking, and being a “learner” (all concerns brought up in the blog post referenced) was from my extra-curricular activities. It’s a common joke among honors students that everyone is trying to pile on all sorts of crazy extra-curricular activities to pad their college applications, but the depth and actual development I had in high school came from these opportunities.

First, there was band. Band was all about having a growth mindset because only one kid in the state got to be 1st chair all-state in a given year, and since I was never that kid, there was something to work on. There is no ceiling on achievement because skills could always be refined and improved, and new challenges were always present. The other major aspect to band was basically learning to be a person. A lot of band was spend with peers, and there were leadership and social opportunities everywhere to grow.

Second, there was computer science club. We divided up into teams of three and toured around the area, going to competitions on Saturdays with desktops, monitors, and peripherals in mind. The importance of computer science club is obviously tremendous to me now because coding is now my day job, so maybe I won’t rant on too much longer here.

Third, there was Academic Decathlon. 10 subjects is a lot of breadth and covers many academic subjects as well as speech, interview, and essays. Like band, teamwork was surprisingly important for entirely individual evaluation because group learning works well, and everyone was always pulling each other along. AD was how I developed my study habit because it epitomized mindless rote memorization. The knowledge itself was pretty useless, but the focus was invaluable.

Before I go on, another disclaimer: yes, I was extremely fortunate to have the time and support from my family to pursue all of these activities. Let’s accept this as a given for the class of “honors students” like me who have very involved parents.

Anyways, many of the things I brought up as lessons from extra-curriculars could be incorporated into the classroom. Freshmen history class could have been tougher and required more into rote memorization. English class could be redesigned so that without grades, writing essays could become a task without a fixed goal. I think the charm of extra-curriculars, though, was that these activities were my choice. I didn’t necessarily want depth across all of my classes. In fact, high school got better when I could blow off a class for a few days to focus on another upcoming competition, and the value of my time on that other activity was far greater than more exploration in a subject I frankly didn’t care about.

I should probably conclude here, though I’m not quite sure where I have gone so far with this post. Our in-class high school education can be improved for high-achieving students to give them more opportunities for higher order thinking. For myself, that change wouldn’t have been very valuable. My interest in classes may have been mostly driven by a desire to get an A, but I think that’s okay. Today, those classes largely only have first-order value to me: I have a basic collection of facts across a broad set of topics. The actual skills and knowledge I learned and passion I developed came from my extra-curricular opportunities.

So I turned out to be the disparaged “honors student” from the blog post. I think it worked out okay.

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