A Tale of Two Approaches to Schooling

Yesterday was a tale of two approaches to schooling for me, each diametrically opposed to the other.

(Well there was the proctoring of the mandated state testing that happened yesterday morning. It’s the season. But this post is not about that. If you want to know what I think about that, read about how I keep my mind busy while “actively proctoring” and the frustrations that came up for me last year in testing season.)

My story starts at 12:45pm, when over half of our department went off-site for some curriculum work. We worked with a district literacy coach (who also teaches middle school in our district), and he showed us a unit-building template he built that works to integrate all the forces pushing on our curriculum planning: CCSS, the impending PARCC assessment of the CCSS, our district curriculum, 21st century skills, the set of books reserved for each course/grade… it’s a lot to pull together. But the literacy coach kind of wowed me with how clearly he did pull all of this together into one template. If we fill it out, we’ve got all of our ducks in a row.

It was a great opportunity for conversation with the department about our work together and our goals for our students. It was a great opportunity for reflective practice–what this unit planning template asks of us will absolutely improve the experiences we offer our students, so I was interested to see what’s missing in what I’m already doing with my students.

But it was overwhelming. We have a lot of conversation and work ahead of us to get everything straightened out.

And then later that day, Mr. S emailed to me and Mr. B the video below. It’s about a school-within-a-school in a Massachusetts public high school where students design and enact their own educational experience for a semester. Guess what they build in none of? Grades, tests, quizzes… It starts with this:

“It’s crazy that in a system that is meant to teach and help the youth, there is no voice from the youth at all.”

(The Independent Project website)

What struck me here was the simplicity, the utter simplicity. Students design their own learning and the semester is structured around this:

  1. Every Monday, each student asks a question connected to one of the four core academic areas. They spend the week researching/exploring and putting together a presentation for their classmates for Friday where they teach their classmates what they learned.
  2. The individual endeavor–each student takes on and ambitious project for the semester, like learning the piano or writing a novel or making a film or conducting extensive research. Must involve effort, learning, and a mastery of skills.
  3. The collective endeavor–the whole class (this year, nine students) takes on a project together at the end of the semester. They must negotiate with one another to determine the focus of the project and then they must work together to enact their vision. (click here to see the students’ articulation of their work for a semester)




Why on earth are we spending hours and hours on curriculum design and standards and aligning curriculum to standards and making sure our instruction prepares students for the big scary state test?

Why not put education into the hands of our students?

We can trust them to do this work. We just need to get out of their way.

As Mr. S pointed out in the office today, human beings are designed to learn. It is the very fabric of our being. If school has become a place where we feel compelled to force students to “learn” through grades and high-stakes tests, then we have really messed things up here. Humans want to learn, no forcing necessary. And in fact, many of our students may just be jumping through the hoops we place before them just to get to graduation and that piece of paper that gets them into college, but they follow their passions with the things they do outside of the realm of the school day.

Why can’t school focus on their passions? How do we teach them to operate in the world when we keep them safe from it here in the artificial ecosystem that is school?

Standards. High stakes tests. Bell schedules. Graduation requirements. Grades. Essentially these things just control students and, increasingly, teachers (as our value as teachers becomes tied to test scores by law as is the case in Colorado). What are we doing? Why are we doing this to them? Why are we doing this to ourselves?

What if my role was to advise and mentor my students along their journey toward their own learning goals? As much as I can, I’m already doing that in my classroom (they choose their books, they choose their essential questions to frame their work, they choose the focus of their writing…). But there’s only so much I can do within an institution that orbits around accountability and things that can be quantified. Because without numbers to show growth has happened, how do we know it has? That’s what the world of educational policy tells us right now, right?

We cannot quantify real, engaged learning. But you know when you’re looking at it.

I almost couldn’t make it through the instructions today for the reading test my group of students did for the state testing: “It’s important for you to show us how well you read.” No. The test doesn’t show anything about what kind of readers students are–it shows us what kind of test takers they are. There’s no standardized test to measure engaged reading. But you know it when you see it. It’s the kids who read voraciously, who have lists of books they want to read next, who refer to books in casual conversation. And because of all the time they spend with books, they’re also strong thinkers and writers and question askers. That’s the kind of real, engaged learning we should be after.

So what are we doing? Really? And how can we just stop doing it?

In the link above to the official Independent Project website, you’ll find another video. I pulled some snippets from it that I want you to read just to get more of a sense about what this is all about. Forgive me for the long bulleted list here, but this is also for me to collect these tidbits for my own work and thinking, and I’m a fan of bulleted lists for that purpose:

  • “I realized that my friends were spending 6 hours a day, 180 days a year not being happy. That just didn’t make sense to me.”
  • “It’s not that there is a sinister group of educational leaders who are intent on making American education intellectually and existentially numbing. It’s just the nature of large bureaucracies and large institutions.”
  • “We all come together to provide education for all of our citizens and there’s this tendency to drive everything toward this point of mediocrity.”
  • “It just doesn’t help anyone because you’re trying to put them all in boxes and humans don’t fit well in boxes.”
  • “The real world isn’t stocked full of textbooks and worksheets.”
  • “How can you teach them about the world when you’re isolating them from the world?”
  • “You can’t achieve the broader goals of making people into readers, making people love ideas, love conversation, love knowledge, want to get good at things if you don’t make school a place where kids want to be.”
  • “Now I feel more confident. I can gather information on my own. I can learn things on my own. I don’t need tests or quizzes. I know it. I know that I know it. And I know that I can express myself through it.”
  • “So often, in this school and in other schools, I see kids who look like they are being passed through the system. Get to this period, this bell, and someone put out this work for me to do, I’m going to get through this. So they’re getting through. I’m not talking about kids who are dropping out even or rebelling. But even successful kids are being sort of pushed along a conveyer belt. And what I see when I look at the independent project are kids who are moving themselves into and out of experiences.”
  • “The real opportunity is for the adults to get out of the way. And when students take responsibility and they’re encouraged to do so, all sorts of wonderful things happen.”
  • “This doesn’t involve hiring a bunch of fancy new people or implementing a bunch of fancy new programs. The potential for this is right there within the walls of every single school.”
  • “We learned how to learn. We learned how to teach. And we learned how to work. We learned how to learn in the sense that we learned how to ask questions and explore the answers using different methods like the scientific method or different resources. We learned how to teach in the sense that we learned how to take what we learned and share it with people not just because we had to do a presentation but because it was our responsibility to make sure that everyone in the group benefitted from our work. And we learned how to work in the sense that we learned how to use different resources and go to different people and use different methods and push each other and be pushed and criticize and be criticized to produce the best work and learn as much as we possibly could.”
  • “I see it as the only way to dramatically change our high school education in this country–to make kids feel in charge of their own education, to make them not just the recipients, but the authors of their own educational experience. And it’s ridiculous for us to have thought that kids between the ages of 14 and 18 weren’t capable of that. They are. So I think this has enormous potential.”

I agree. I see so much potential here. And I have to admit that I had a moment last evening after I first watched the video where I thought, “That’s it. I’m done. I cannot go back to teach at a high school that isn’t something like the independent project.” Of course this kind of thinking is especially vivid in the midst of mandated state testing time. But I really did have that moment where I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore, starting today.

But the truth is that I love my school, my students, my colleagues, my community. I’m there for the long haul. My challenge now has become clear: how can I minimize my role, my “authorship” of my students’ educational experiences so that they can step in to be more in charge themselves? I’m already doing this in lots of small meaningful ways, but I want more. It means giving up even more control and convincing my students I trust them to do good work that is important to them.

So even though I can’t magically make the independent project appear in my school tomorrow, there ARE things I can do to move toward more of that kind of experience for my students in my classroom. And I can do what I can via conversation with my colleagues to encourage them to do the same. And I can work with my school leaders to see how we can build in more flexibility to the structures of our school as a whole to create more space for students to make choices about how they spend their time over the four years that we have them.

I can keep at the forefront of everything that I do in my school community (including the complex curriculum work we were asked to begin yesterday afternoon) the important goal of empowering students through education by putting them in the driver’s seat.

And I can remind myself to just get the heck out of my students’ way.

“Inspiration, hunger: these are the forces that drive good schools. The best we educational planners can do is create the most likely conditions for them to flourish and then get out of the way.” –Ted Sizer

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2 Responses to A Tale of Two Approaches to Schooling

  1. Anon says:

    I haven’t had the time to look into this more, so I may as well ask for your opinion: could you see this being implemented in a larger scale?

    I doubt you’d find many who would oppose such methods for educating youth. However, I think that those who would oppose this are held back by the inability to quantify what these students are learning. How is a higher learning institution supposed to know in < 20 minutes if the applicant is ready for the academic rigor? I completely agree that, while hard to quantify, it's obvious that these students are receiving a meaningful education when you see it.

    University applications seem to hint at wanting the students that this program produces because they fit the mold of the "well-rounded student". Yet, most application continue to be tossed due to differences in a number that we call a GPA. How exactly does a number between 1-4 embody the result of 4 years of education? Not very well in my opinion.

    Anyways, great post and thanks for bringing attention to that program!

    • DocZ says:

      I’m not sure about what this would look like on a larger scale. A lot of assumptions about schooling would need a shake up to make it happen. And I don’t think that large-scale quick change is the way to get to the most meaningful change anyhow. We move forward meaningfully in slow, little steps. Everything in education depends on context–what works in one school may not in another, but we need to see the different possibilities for schools out there to better imagine options for our own schools.

      So where my brain has been all week is here: what is it about this model that worked to engage these students as it did and how can I bring those things into my own teaching world?

      I had an interesting conversation with a few of my newspaper students yesterday who watched the video. They loved the model and said it would work for them (even the one senior who saw it who is practically immobilized by senioritis right now).

      Thanks for reading our blog!

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