Should high schools do away with separating students by age?

What about grades and exams?

It might sound like something suggested by students themselves, thinking it’ll make high school a breeze, but it’s a serious suggestion discussed this week at an education summit in Waterloo.

The Waterloo Global Science Initiative has played host to the Equinox Summit – a four-day affair examining what high school could and should look like in the year 2030.

Found at the top of many participants’ wishlists is a massive overhaul of the education system modeled after behaviours in the business world.

“It’s about putting practices in place that industry has used for decades … looking at the effects and outcomes, deciding if that worked or didn’t work for their organization,” says Jennifer Groff, a graduate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s good practice in any profession or any environment to be looking at new models. Too often we know something’s not working and we keep doing it anyway.”

Among those practices: getting rid of standardized tests, traditional grades and grouping students based on their age.

In their place would be a collaborative environment where students are encouraged to pursue the subjects and activities that interest them most.

“Grades are such a powerful marker and such a core part of education as it stands today,” says PhD student Eric Kennedy.

“What we heard from the students and from the teachers involved in the summit is that the best work that’s done is when students are passionate and engaged, when they really care about what they’re learning.”

Groff acknowledges that opposition to change would make it difficult to get enough people on board with these ideas to make them happen, but says even adopting one or two of the summit’s ideas would get the ball rolling.

“If we started to pull those practices into the system and didn’t look at any of the other elements we’re looking for in this blueprint, you would start to see existing learning environments move toward the blueprint we’re advocating for anyway,” she says.

Conference attendee Victoria Yang, a fifth-year student at Waterloo Collegiate, liked what she was hearing at the Equinox Summit.

“Grades currently put a lot of stress on the student and don’t necessarily reflect their abilities,” she says.

“There are much better ways that we can do that.”

Organizers of the summit plan to hold a follow-up session next year to look at how their ideas could be put into practice by 2030.