Interview

Paul Foster
High School Guidance Counselor

By George Packard

Paul Foster is Director of Guidance at a regional high school in New Hampshire, and has worked with young people in England and the USA in many different capacities over the last thirty years.

He has a BA from York University, a teaching certificate from Oxford and a Masters in Clinical Social Work from Nottingham University. He is currently finishing a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership at University of Vermont. He has traveled widely in Africa, Europe and Central America.

Question: Do you encourage students to look outside the high school for programs?

Foster: I've always felt that high school is just a piece of the puzzle of the broader concept of educational learning. There are just so many opportunities for students now out there, and I think they are increasing very rapidly. In fact, just the task of categorizing all the different types of programs now is getting to be very difficult. As soon as you get a list, it's going to be out of date.

Q: Why should teens participate in these types of programs?

Foster: I think in terms of the overall benefit to students of broadening their education beyond what they can find in their high school. Not only colleges, but employers are really asking questions about what kind of character skills young people have developed, what we also call "soft skills." These are things like initiative, decision-making, communications skills, working with other people. In fact, here in New Hampshire we are looking at moving towards a different kind of high school transcript that would reflect those types of soft skills.

Q: Is this just about getting into college or getting hired?

Foster: The kind of program we're talking about, whether it's Student Conservation Association, Semester at Sea, or even informal traveling, really gives students the chance to develop those skills.

Even more than that, I think these experiences bring out another dimension of education and understanding for students that they really can't find in any other way. I encourage as many students as I can to really think about how they are going to use their summers and their time off, how they can challenge themselves in new areas.

Overall, students remember these things as one of the best times in their lives. These programs really resonate with students as being a fantastic opportunity, a real expansion of their horizons. I think it really changes their whole perspective on what their lives in the world are really all about. I see their enthusiasm and excitement for what they've learned when they come back, and how it gives them an appetite for new ways of learning.

Q: Are high schools warming up to the idea of expanding the idea of education?

Foster: I think we're beginning to see the walls of education come down in terms of what students can do, what fits into the classical definition of a high school education. We're seeing kids coming in and saying, "I want to take this course on the internet," or "I did this course over the summer, and can I get credit for it."

We see kids go to take a course at a college in their junior or senior year, and say, "I've done a dance class, will this count for phys ed credit?" As a high school and as a community we need to be more and more open to these new forms of learning. I see this as kids taking control of their learning. It's what we call a constructivist approach to learning.

Most really good learning happens when students can find meaning in what they are doing, when they have control over it. Kids are not just open vessels into which we can pour knowledge. Learning is an experiential process that works best when the student is actively involved in it.

The students who are taking charge of their educational experience are the ones who are setting themselves up to be lifelong learners, who will always be looking and pushing themselves.

Q: So the kids who take charge of their learning learn more?

Foster: There are two schools of thought in education. The traditional school holds that basically there is a set amount of knowledge that we want kids to acquire. So the kids sit there and we fill them up, explaining to them that this is the knowledge we think they ought to have. And we test them until we're blue in the face to make sure they know our curriculum.

The constructivist school is much more student-centered. It holds that kids learn best when things make meaning for them. It's very much where kids see teachers as coaches, facilitators, and where they take control of their own learning.

Q: What keeps teens from taking more advantage of these opportunities?

Foster: Many of these programs cost a lot of money, and as such they can be out of the reach of a number of students. I think we've got to do quite a bit of work around ways to give a wider ranger of kids access to the programs that interest them through scholarships and other resources. And at the same time we need to do more outreach to get the ideas to the students who really have never even thought about this type of experience, who don't come from the kind of family background that is familiar with these kinds of ideas.