This Is What a Student-Designed School Looks Like

| July 14, 2014 | 54 Comments
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Independence Project/ image from Charles Tsai's movie

The Independent Project/ image from Charles Tsai’s movie

When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.

“He came up with a plan where the core areas could still be studied, but in a way where students were more of the driving force,” explains guidance counselor Mike Powell. The administration decided to take a chance on a semester-long pilot project, and The Independent Project debuted in the fall of 2010.

The pilot involved eight students — sophomores, juniors and seniors — chosen on the basis of written applications and interviews. “The idea was that it was for students who could manage their time well, were looking for something more than the traditional program, and had a passion for learning,” says Powell, who served as the group’s primary adviser. Academic performance didn’t matter — the group included straight-A students as well as students who were failing many of their classes. The group was fairly diverse in other ways, too, with the students hailing from a range of blue-collar and white-collar family backgrounds.

Their time, other than daily group meetings, was theirs to manage. “This was pretty unheard of — teens being alone most of the day,” Powell notes.

They explored math, science, social science and literature topics that interested them, choosing one question each week, researching it, and presenting their findings to the group. They also chose books to read, discuss and write about in some form; worked on a semester-long individual project on a subject that excited them (the only requirement was that the project require effort, learning and mastery); and collaborated on a three-week-long group endeavor (they decided to make a video about education and their project). They were responsible for giving a final presentation about their project, which helped to give them a specific goal to work toward.

As the adviser, Powell checked in with the group every morning; he also offered logistical support and helped the students locate resources. Three other faculty members — a science teacher, a math teacher and a social science teacher — served as an advisory committee, meeting with the students for one period a day to help them in whatever way was needed, such as to talk through some of the more complex ideas presented in a research book. The students also consulted other teachers and outside experts as needed. When members of the community were asked to share their knowledge, “the vast majority of the time, they came running,” Powell says.

CHALLENGES ALONG THE WAY

The program encountered some bumps. “We struggled with how to do peer-to-peer constructive criticism,” Powell says. “It’s a bit different in a classroom, where there’s a teacher setting boundaries and helping create structure. They found doing that with peers challenging. But that was a big part of the program—they had to be accountable for what they were doing. … They’re teens, so to think that at that age they will always make good choices and manage their time well is not realistic. Even adults aren’t like that.”

It was also difficult for some other faculty members to accept that students were earning credit for such an amorphous undertaking. So the group tried to be transparent and made their final presentations — which ran the gamut from performances to cooking a large meal — open to the public.

At the end of the semester, “everyone was satisfied – the parents, the students, and the school,” Powell says. The project’s “White Paper” notes that parents “were very aware of what was going on in the program because the kids were talking about school at home much more than they ever had in the past.”

“There were so many moments where you could see students being inspired,” Powell says. “And they learned that with that much control comes a great deal of responsibility, to manage time and be accountable.”

Sam Levin, creator of the Independence Project.

Sam Levin, creator of the Independent Project.

The school chose to continue the program, which runs for one semester each year and involves nine to 12 students who receive credit and a pass/fail. “It was really risky, because we didn’t know how colleges would interpret this on a transcript,” Powell says. “But so far we’ve had only an overwhelmingly positive response,” including from highly selective colleges, such as Oxford and Williams, that have accepted graduates.

Nevertheless, not a lot of students apply to participate in the project. “They know it involves more work [than taking regular classes] and that they have to push themselves to do it,” says science teacher Daniel Gray, who served as the group’s primary adviser this year. (He also had prior experience with this type of model—he had studied democratic education and then helped introduce some of those principles to a public middle school.)

Most high school students are neither interested nor ready for such an experience, he says. But he adds: “I think that if they had been given progressively more responsibility over the years, they would be ready. My seventh- and eighth-graders, after a year or two, they got it, and they were more mature than you would expect them to be at that age.”

APPLYING LESSONS LEARNED

Although some teachers at Monument Mountain remain skeptical, the majority of them now support the program. Some have even copied elements of it, for example letting English students choose which books to read. It has also spawned “positive” discussions about the most appropriate role for teachers, Powell says.

There have been a number of refinements over the years. One has been to hold the program in the spring, to avoid a sudden and tough transition back to taking regular classes where students can no longer control what they’re learning. And the number of faculty assigned to the project was reduced to three and then (for scheduling reasons) two. Each group has also introduced its own twist — this year the students had even more leeway and no subject-area requirements. The constants have been the weekly research question, the books component, and the individual endeavor, which has ranged from vocational pursuits such as building a kayak, to artistic tasks such as writing a novel, to scientific explorations such as examining how Western and Eastern medicine deal differently with Lyme disease.

Securing assistance from teachers sometimes proved challenging. “It’s something most students aren’t used to doing,” says Logan Malik, a just-graduated senior who organized the program this year. “Instead of a teacher telling you what to do, you’re telling the teacher what you’re learning, what you want information on, and when you want to meet. And then they would have to do some prep.” Nevertheless, “teachers were very willing to help us, even if it was on their own time.” (The students also served as “a first-grade support group for each other,” Gray says.)

Although he’s heading to college to study pre-med, Logan’s individual endeavor this spring was to learn classical guitar. He watched a YouTube tutorial to learn the proper fingering and then practiced about four hours a day. He says he would never have been able to dive into the activity like this if he’d continued with his rigorous course load, and learning it over a summer wouldn’t have been as productive without a group and some structure. The Independent Project work kept him busy, he says, “but the busy-ness was easier to get through, compared to slaving through something you don’t want to be doing and don’t value as much.”

The stress was also less, because the evaluations (other than the final pass/fail) were formative rather than summative — intended not to judge, but to help students improve their work.

It was challenging sometimes to stay on task to meet deadlines that were not enforced by authorities, Malik says, “but we did well overall.” The students tried to be flexible and fair, and to account for the natural ebb and flow in people’s attention and motivation levels, as well as unexpected complications. Extensions were granted to students who asked for more time to research a question. “Once the person was given an extra week, they felt they needed to do more, and they worked hard,” Malik notes. Other times individuals were given a pass to give them a chance to get back on track. In the past, when tensions have arisen or the group’s energy has seemed particularly low, the group has literally taken a hike, while discussing their goals and potential improvements to the program.

Malik enjoyed many of his regular classes and sees this program as a complement rather than a complete replacement for them. “For a lot of subjects, like chemistry, it’s good to be taught by someone, so the structure of the class helps. And in social science, it’s good to be introduced to ideas by someone who understands those ideas really well.” But The Independent Project offers benefits that aren’t available in an adult-led classroom, he adds. “It really establishes an idea of what self-motivation is. There is critiquing, but it all comes back to you. That’s really valuable.”

CHANGES IN STUDENTS

Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.

The “White Paper” also notes that the project instills a “sense of ownership of their education has stayed with the students long after the program ended. Although some students have continued to struggle academically, feedback from parents has suggested that they are pursuing more interests outside of school than they were before The Independent Project.”

It continues: “That is not to say no one will fail; any program or system will contain failure. In fact, in the pilot of the Independent Project one student struggled to complete the work, and did not receive full credit for the program … The goal, then, is to not make The Independent Project so that no one fails, but to make it so fewer people fail than in the current system, and to make success in The Independent Project carry more intellectual meaning than success often does in the current system.”

The program doesn’t require a lot of additional resources, and other public schools have visited Monument Valley to find out how to replicate it. (A professional filmmaker has also produced a video about it.) Powell says it requires administrators who are open to focusing education on students, rather than teachers or a curriculum. But he offers a caution: “Because the focus is on the student, that’s where you need to start. This came from a student and was pushed by him, through all the red tape. A program like this probably won’t be terribly successful if it’s teacher-driven. If a group of adults want to replicate this, … I would have conversations with the students about it, and see how they respond and where they take it. If students are interested in the concept, it will guide itself.”

Meet some of the students in this video created by Charles Tsai.

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  • Hayley

    More from Sam Levin – the Founder of the Independent Project – here [VIDEO] http://bit.ly/U9CykY and in the Washington post http://wapo.st/WcFzmc

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  • Oplerno

    Great piece, we are implementing a number of the points mentioned here.

  • http://edtechcoop.posthaven.com/ David Carpenter

    Hopefully Sam’s initiative, creativity and leadership will inspire other students to develop similar programs at their schools. Speaking of creative students, Sophia Pink, daughter of Daniel Pink, constructed her own hybrid 10th grade year totally away from her school but with admin’s blessing. You can catch two interviews with Sophia where she speaks about her hybrid year (show 52) and her ideas on redesigning high school (show 53)at http://bit.ly/19FdeKX While you are at the Ed Tech Co-Op site maybe listen to the voice of another Sam who shares his ideas on how to redesign high school (show 44) and how he designed a seminar for his TOK class (show 54). We definitely need to hear the voices and ideas of our students to partner in improving our schools.

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  • D.B. Cooper

    I’m not going to put much faith in the responsibility of a bunch of high school students anymore than I need the military advice from a private first class, or a newlywed’s guide to a lasting marriage.

    • Brent

      Always good to hear what D.B. Cooper has to add to the conversation.

    • Isaac F

      These high school students are not being asked to write textbooks on chemistry and economics. They are being allowed the liberty to take responsibility for their own educations and pursue research in the fields they are most passionate about. If we don’t have faith in the rising generation they most certainly will not have much faith in themselves.

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  • Labyrinthia

    I remember hearing about a high school where students would attend more traditional classes in the morning and in the afternoon work more independently on projects as well as homework. I think it was Montessori based? It seemed like a good balance.

  • Roadrunner

    We had Independent Learning in Pittsburgh in the 70′s. It was considered “experimental”. Most of my classmates have gone on to be leaders in industry and thriving in their fields. There is something to be said about “lead a horse to water and let them drink”. Good luck, kids.

  • Tom

    Hello, I’m trying to get approved an independent study program at Illinois State University for every single course. The University of Wisconsin has something similar to this, but its course selection only goes up to the Freshman/Sophomore level it seems.

    You can message me here: https://twitter.com/tom_grock

    Then I can give you my email address if you want to discuss this further.

  • Grateful mom

    Montessori students get to experience this every day with every subject. We need more public Montessori schools — elementary as well as high school. I’m fortunate that my sixth and eighth grade daughters are in a public Montessori school and I only wish we had a Montessori high school to send them to. More Montessori for all!!!

  • Mikey Bob

    Sadly, it seems politicians would never support this means of education because the results are not quantifiable and easy to showcase to taxpayers as an objective “improvement.” While I applaud the efforts of those involved in the program, and I think it’s what education should ideally be, it will be doomed to small-scale implementation.

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  • Amanda Lechner

    I was a student in a similar revolutionary program in Santa Fe, NM in the 90s. ACAT, the Academy of Communication Arts and Technology was an off shoot from the public high school and was facilitated by Consuela Gonzales. At risk students were alongside AP students designing their curriculum and doing community service. The program kept many of my peers from dropping out of school and ultimately attend college. As a high achieving student I was challenged in ways I never experienced in traditional classrooms

  • Artonomy

    Many homeschoolers approach their education in a similar fashion. Inquiry and interest-led learning, with some minor parameters set forth by parents or teachers, can lead to engaged, productive people. Learning on a deeper level happens when the subject matter is meaningful to the student, no matter the age. I think this program is a remarkable option within a school setting and I wish more teens could experience learning in this fashion.

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  • http://www.charlestsai.com/ Charles Tsai

    Thanks for sharing the documentary.

  • Thor

    Its amazing how many people have so many good ideas that work for changing the American school system but the government refuses to listen.

  • maraith

    Yeah, but how did they do on the required standardized tests? That seems to be what the government thinks is most important.

    • Jaye strait

      Government is the problem. Look at their latest report card

      • marid

        Not Govt., the educational Corporations have stolen the agenda and the govt. Michele Rhee is their acolyte.

  • Student

    This sounds very similar to PBL (Project Based Learning) and the New Tech Network, which is a network of schools throughout the country that teach students in a manner close to how these students are being taught. As a junior at one of the newer schools in the network, I will be definitely be bringing this article up with my school administrators as a way to become even more student centered!

  • NotoLepage

    I was a founding member/student of a similar program in 1974 on Cape Cod – out of 10 graduates in my year, two got perfect 1600′s on SAT’s (I got an 800 in Verbal), 100% went to college and graduated, and 100% of us had been counseled by administrators to drop out and consider taking up a trade, since we were terrible students in a regimented classroom setting. Our ‘classes’ were often held at the beach, or at night at someone’s house, and frequently taught by retired physicists, artists and novelists. Not everyone responds well to bells like a Pavlovian dog.

    • susieque2

      I was a founding member of such a group in Illinois in 1973. I had about the same experience you did. All the people in it went on to get 4 year degrees.

  • Margaret Hart

    Please do not publicize this broadly. The Establishment will decide we should do it this way with all students, regardless of ability or interest. And anybody who disagrees, they will declare, just does not know how to teach.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/dattajack dattajack

    “The idea was that it was for students who could manage their time well, were looking for something more than the traditional program, and had a passion for learning,” …a PASsion for LEArning …A PASSION FOR LEARNING!!!! …So no, it wouldn’t work for most teens these days.

  • Joseph Giordano

    I like how they selected students for the program based “written applications and interviews” since it ensures that interested and capable students are selected from the general population of students. I would hope this group outperforms the rest of the school. Didn’t we used to do this years ago where we tracked the most capable kids from the wealthiest families into “honors” and “gifted” programs and the least capable into “remedial” programs from which there is no escape? I thought the powers that be moved away from this structure and towards mainstreaming for a variety of misguided but well intentioned reasons. Glad to see we can still, at least subversively, sort by ability, because maybe in the rawest sense some children should indeed be left behind.

    • Luba V.

      They selected students who appeared ready and willing to handle such a program. However, the selected students came from a range of family backgrounds, and some were on the verge of failing out of school.

  • xfatdanax

    How interesting! In my high school we just prayed for better grades…Seriously. We prayed before every class. This was the most distracting thing about my school. Why study when God will take care of it? That was the attitude of my peers for the most part. I hope to see more projects like this becoming mainstream!

  • Gabriel Ross

    The opening line about how the students were selected tells you all you need to know. Sure. Something like this would work for some students. What about the rest of the student body?

    • A.G.

      The rest of the student body receives the traditional education model.

      • marid

        Even that could be tweaked to produce better results. But the Corpse have stolen the agenda and now it is about testing, testing, and punishing. Too bad for they could all do better.

    • Evan

      Exactly. These kids were chosen based on written applications and interviews, of course they will be well-spoken and motivated. I love the idea as well, but wonder what happens as you apply it to a larger group. I would like to believe that social pressure would be enough to keep most kids interested in learning and doing something interesting, but there is real apathy out there regardless of the school system.

      • kbielefe

        They mentioned later on about starting to prepare students earlier. Homeschoolers who take a similar approach after having been in the public school system often report needing a “deschooling” period, where they get the old way of always being told what to do out of their system.

        I think the vast majority of children are capable of something like this. The apathy you describe is due to children having little to no control over the direction of their education. A lot of motivation comes from having a degree of autonomy. It’s hard to understand what a huge difference it makes until you’ve seen it for yourself.

        On average, my son was completing only two out of twelve assignments at school every day, not exactly someone you’d describe as a motivated student, but after homeschooling him for nearly a year, you wouldn’t know it. He still requires much more guidance than his younger sister, but we give him little choices that make all the difference in the world. For example, we let him write about ninjas instead of copying some boring sentences about topics he doesn’t care about.

  • rabbmari

    Sounds a lot like the WISE program (Individualized Student Experience). My son did one last year at Ithaca High. Been around for 40 years. Wiseservices.org

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  • scott seibert

    This is an open school format and works for students who are self motivated and driven. IT does NOT work for the masses. I applaud students who can learn and achieve in this way. I could not, nor could many of my students. I can think of a few from each class that would have benefited from this program. Please do not take this article as a fix all for our educational system.

    • Laura

      Yet all people, when they are infants and toddlers, are self motivated and driven to learn. Is it personality that changes this, or the way education is handled?

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  • r

    So, they took a handful of students who really wanted to learn, said “go learn,” and they learned. Wouldn’t this work no matter what method was used? There is a saying in the education world, “Good students will learn in spite of how you teach them.”

  • Jaye Strait

    Learning should ALWAYS involve new ideas. Education should always have various disciplines and challenges as well as liberties, rewards, consequences to duplicate REAL LIFE in work and play. Some people are great at math or English others are great at manual skills not one or the other is better each has unique value in the market place and should be respected everyday from K-12 by students and teachers alike. Love of learning is created by having fun and fostering enthusiasm for lifetime of learning about all things not by the traditional academic smart vs dumb model. Skills and knowledge go together create confident and competent people who avoid problems associated with the one size fits all approach in education as it is.

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  • James Wren

    This is fantastic, and what real learning should be. I run creative workshops and set up in-school design agencies, it’s all about time, space, autonomy, confidence – exactly how kids get the best results, and I don’t mean academic ones. This article is on my pin board as motivation and I’d love anyone interested in creative ways of learning to drop me a line! Cheers for now http://www.theschoolofcreativethinking.com

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