Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community
If you take a look at the numbers, a boredom epidemic appears to be plaguing high school students. As kids move from elementary school to middle school and high school, their level of engagement declines. At the same time, starting freshman year the pressures increase with an intensifying emphasis on grades, college admissions, competitive athletics, standardized tests, and the relentless pursuit of shiny extracurricular activities to make their resumes sparkle. By senior year, what’s fun about high school is probably...graduation.
What’s going on? Can students be learning in this environment?
In their book, In Search of Deeper Learning, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine spent significant time in all types of American high schools, and came to the answer, “yes.” They concluded that students are, in fact, learning — but not in their core classes: electives and clubs are the life-changing activities during the high school years.
Why are these hands-on activities fun? Mehta and Fine explain: “Instead of feeling like training grounds or holding pens, they felt like design studios or research laboratories: lively, productive places where teachers and students engaged together in consequential work.”
To make school fun, this kind of collaboration needs to be a part of the school curriculum, starting from the first day,
However, traditional schools are often bogged down with requirements, assessments and standards that sideline the most fun parts of learning: English teachers have set reading lists, math teachers have a list of skills to blaze through by certain dates, and creativity gets relegated to art class.
That’s one problem, but the other problem is that most schools still teach kids in artificial subject-silos that don’t reflect how problems are solved in the real world — the kind of “consequential work” that Mehta and Fine advocate in their research.
When you think of your kid’s idea of fun, you might not put “consequential work” on the top of your list: Fun might sound like getting to end class early, scrolling through social media instead of listening to a lecture, or hanging out with friends at lunch.
But we see fun a little differently at Prisma: it’s not a break from learning that makes learning a sweeter pill to swallow. The learning is the fun.
When it comes to having fun at school, Prisma’s staff is very much on the same page. Leena Williams, Lead Coach and Curriculum Designer in our high school, speaks to Prisma’s definition.
“We make learning fun by thinking of fun differently. Fun is often thought of as synonymous with light or carefree, but we believe that caring IS fun. It feels good to sink your teeth into challenging things, and it feels good to be driven by a purpose, a mission and an idea, even though that is hard work. We recognize that the ‘fun’ part is often the deep satisfaction of conquering challenges and the warm glowing feeling of pride when you have created something amazing after a struggle.”
If you’re coming from an environment where “fun” is kept at an arm’s length from learning, that might sound like a tall order. But there are ways to make high school fun: If you’re homeschooling, you have latitude to experiment along the way, changing direction if what you did last year is no longer a good fit for where your child is today and where they’ll be next year. The following ideas will help you incorporate this kind of fun into your daily routine.
And if you’re looking for a whole new school environment for your child, centered around this kind of fun, consider these criteria.
“Fun” is highly subjective. A fun thing for one person might be a snooze for another. But for all of us, it starts with what gets us curious. The game your child didn’t want to stop playing. The podcast they didn’t want to stop listening to. The news story they couldn’t stop questioning.
Curiosity is the seed that grows into fun — so the best way to ensure the right plant takes root for your child is to let them be in control of their learning experience. Student-led learning embraces the idea that schoolwork can be a lot of fun: We’ve had students design video games and then improve it by play it with their best friend; we’ve had students build their own business, win a national poetry competition, and create podcasts.
But it’s the student who decides to go down that path because of something internal pulling them in that direction.
At the same time, our learning model brings students together for group workshops, so it’s not all independent work all the time. But our curriculum designers are constantly putting themselves in their learners’ shoes, to figure out fun ways to make the workshops resonate with the community.
James McManus, High School Coach & Curriculum Designer, comments, “My standard on ‘fun’ is that I ask myself, ‘Would I want to take this workshop?’ If the answer is no, then I scrap it and try something else.”
McManus suggests using these benchmarks: “If you can make it learner-led, hard fun, and hands-on, then that's a home run!”
Part of earning a sense of satisfaction means encountering obstacles, surprise detours and occasional dead-ends. As McManus explains, “Bear in mind that ‘fun’ almost never equals ‘easy’! We want them to understand that overcoming or learning something difficult can be fun in its own way.”
This is where parents and teachers need to strike a careful balance between swooping in and helicoptering their child out of the tough spots, and letting them wander indefinitely. If you see your teen struggling to the point of frustration, that’s a sign they’ve missed the “fun” exit, and they need a little more guidance. Our coaches start learners out with training wheels and, as they grow, they give them more and more freedom to ride the bike themselves — and there’s nothing more exhilarating than that first whoosh down the street on your own.
Learning is more fun in community. There’s something inherently human about wanting to collaborate, give and take feedback, and celebrate our peers when they do something even better than they did it last time.
But that gets overshadowed when kids find themselves in a school environment dominated by cliques where bullying runs rampant and its hard to make new friends.
A tight-knit cohort, carefully supervised by experienced coaches, sets the stage for the kind of collaborative, engaging exploration that inspires kids to give more of themselves — not in that stressful, pre-burnout kind of way, but in the holistic sense of bringing your very best because you feel safe in doing so.
Just because the learning part is fun doesn’t mean a high school should leave out those fun activities that leave a deep impression — even if that school is virtual: clubs, field trips, and even (virtual) school dances.
Kids can — and do — have fun learning together, but they also need time to play freely, to relate informally and to achieve goals together outside the classroom. That’s why we provide virtual lounges and clubs, where kids can just hang out, deepen their sense of self, and bond over their shared interests.
"D&D club is a place to be yourself, a place full of adventure, a place brimming with wonder, and a place simply overflowing with creativity,” says Levi Johns, Prisma high schooler and club leader for Dungeons & Dragons. He continues:
“D&D is built on the ideas and creations of all the people part of it, causing large amounts of enjoyment and laughter. It is no simple role-playing game, but a world to be enjoyed by those who created it. It wouldn't be what it is today without those players who make it all the more fun, filling D&D sessions with coups, viking ducks, and substantial dislike of the Scam Turtle."
This kind of fun, rooted in — and deepening — their sense of community, turns into the fuel that feeds their love of learning, in and out of the classroom.