Meet The Smarty-Pants Kids Who Stopped Going To Class And The Teachers Were Like, 'That's Cool'

For a lot of us, it's almost hard to imagine what school would be like without having to sit in class all day, take tests, and answer to teachers. These kids not only can imagine it, they wanna show you what it has meant for them and their development. It looks so smart and fun!

Obviously this sort of self-directed learning wouldn't work at all schools or for all students, but isn't it refreshing to see a school giving its students the opportunity to do something other than pass standardized tests?

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

If students designed their own schools, what would school look like?

"Crime and Punishment" is first and foremost a test.

Probably something like this. No quizzes, no grades, not even classes.

I think Dostoyevsky actually might disagree with me on that.

And most of the time, no teachers or any adults in the classroom.

So it's a completely alternative academic program here at Monument. We have nine kids in it and we look at the four main bodies of learning, you know, English, math, social sciences, and natural sciences.

I think the most valuable with these sorts of problems is . . .

This is a school within the public high school, designed by the students themselves. The program, known as the Independent Project, runs for one semester and is divided into three parts. All follow the same basic rule, design your own learning. Every Monday, each student comes up with a question he or she is curious about; it should be related to one of their core subjects.

The most important thing about your question is that you actually want to know the answer.

They spend the week doing research or experimentation.

It's like consistent as if it really is the language

And on Friday, they each give a formal presentation to share what they've learned.

If the question is yours, the answer's going to feel great when you obtain it.

Like scientists say, it's undeniable that this was a battery.

My goal, every presentation, is to be as engaging as possible and make my care for my subject as infectious as possible, try to make everyone catch it.

One block.

The week I visited the questions touched on diverse topics that included unexplained mysteries, the novel, "Crime and Punishment," the naturalist, John Muir.

Like, arts and music to the Berkshires.

A local music establishment, called Music Inn, and HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

So, for a week, I went out and I took a flight lesson. I built myself a model airplane. Each day, I was like, "I want to know why a wing generates lift", and it was that question that kept guiding me through all this research, and it was fun research.

These weekly questions usually take up half of their time. The other half is spent on their individual endeavor, which is a much more ambitious project that they work on for the entire term. Some learn to play an instrument for the very first time and put on a recital.

SIn two short years, I've learned to play the piano fairly well, you know. I can play with other people. I'm in a band now; I can hold a beat, I can play.

Others work on writing a book and a collection of poems.

I try to write two to four hours a day, like a one hour day is really bad, and a five or six hour day is excellent.

Some choose to devote their time to researching topics, such as education or the environment. Again, it's whatever they decide, as long as it demonstrates effort, learning, and a mastery of skills.

The thing that you center your semester around doesn't have to be academic. It can be something that you can really develop a strong passion for.

This year my individual endeavor has been a complete blast.

So I guess that's why I steal and lie compulsively.

I've been making a mockumentary of the kids in my school, in very organic process; it's a lot of improv. There's no script. I've been kind of making it up as I go.

I could say, like, you know, I've seen bigger shoulders on a trout. You know, or something like that. And so Jamie could giggle at that, right?

I think I've gotten better work from having it open-ended. You know, your friends can suddenly think of something and you build onto that, and then they build back onto that. And you have something that was 20 times funnier than you originally thought.

We couldn't really agree on an issue that we thought we could do sincerely and effectively.

Okay.

And all--

Aside from the weekly questions and the individual endeavor, students also spend the last three weeks working on a group project called the "collective endeavor".

Yeah, can we make a music video record?

No

Here, they are starting to debate what they should do.

We could present statistics on youth addiction to technology or how . . .

The goal of the collective endeavor is to produce social impact and to make a difference.

Just tell me why you're clearly not digging it, and I want to know why.

Okay, I'm slowly digging it more, but . . .

But as you can see, it's also a chance for this group to practice collaboration skills, and to unite around a common cause.

I think the best way to try to come to a final conclusion on an idea is like, have an idea, you know, figure out what's good and bad about it, and then just add onto it, instead of being . . .

Self-directed learning in small doses can be found at many schools, but few public schools have taken it to this extreme. Giving students full control of their school day was a big gamble on the part of the principal, Marianne Young.

My personal and professional investment in these opportunities is to create a school and a way of educating young people that allows them to be completely invested, and to stop trying to move every kind of human being through the same gate.

And the things like you're describing . . .

When the independent project was first proposed, it was met with a lot of resistance from some of the teachers, who felt there were too many unanswered questions.

What's the role of the teacher? Who decides what's good work? Who decides what earns credit and merits a diploma from this high school?

The project did find strong support from the guidance counselor and a few teachers who became advisors. So Principal Young agreed to pilot it not once, but twice. This is the second pilot.

It's a pretty good risk to take on a student, to allow them an opportunity for this sort of independent freedom and thinking, because it can't really fail. Are there different skating positions that you do when you're boarding?

There's different . . .

I can't tell you how many, you know, how much time the questions get me thinking and then I go and try to learn or refresh. Everyone has gained and will gain something positive.

And then you land back on it like that.

After two trials, what tangible benefits do they see? First, the independent project seems to accommodate different types of learners, both the straight-A students and those who have been struggling academically.

I have dyslexia, so it's very hard, reading, and writing, and doing those sorts of things, so school has always been a big problem for me. And if not for this program, I mean, I don't know if I would be graduating. I don't know where I would be right now. So I think that this has really been my savior and got me through the last two years of high school.

Free from assigned work and tests, they're able to focus on the one thing that motivates everyone to learn: their own passions.

I think I've stayed up at night doing work more times in this semester than I had in the previous three years of high school, you know?

I think every single person wants to learn about something. Even the kids who are barely going to classes, you know, they want to learn something and whether that be, you know, auto mechanics, or you know, the physics of skateboarding, or you know, how ice cream is made. Everybody is interested in something and this gives you the room and the space to really learn whatever you want, you know?

Another key benefit, learning becomes a group activity. There's mutual support every step of the way, starting with a morning check-in.

I had a bad day yesterday, sorry to end on a morose note, but my kitty got put down.

No.

It's called the independent project, but I don't think it could be any more dependent on a number of things. This program is really dependent on people working together. It's dependent on people pushing each other, giving constructive criticism, giving support, giving praise. It's dependent on people using resources and finding those resources. It's dependent on being creative. It's dependent on learning how to ask a question.

Group dynamic is everything, you know, and that's one of the most important concepts of this program is you are not only doing it for yourself, but you're doing it for your groupmates. And it's like a team.

I enjoy being with people as interested in what they're doing as I am in what I'm doing, even though we're not all doing the same thing.

Okily dokily, let's get a workily.

Peer support also means peer pressure to stay on track and follow through on your commitments.

If you blow off the independent project, you're letting eight of your friends down and that feels a lot different than getting a D on a test. It feels a lot worse, you know. So in that way, there's a lot more pressure to do well than there is in normal school. Because in normal school, you're only letting down one person, whereas here you're impacting a huge group of people really negatively.

Do you guys criticize each other?

Yes. Period. Yes. That's definitely the hardest part.

The most visible benefit, however, is the ownership that students feel over their learning. Sandy's presentation on "Crime and Punishment" sparked a lively discussion, but didn't go as planned.

What are those lines that must bound us as persons in the world?

Yeah, are you asking me?

Yeah, I'm asking you, just go on a little bit.

Although no one else noticed it, you felt he lost control of what he wanted to say.

I just faltered and I couldn't get the grasp on the book that I wanted to grasp. And what really frustrated me is that I want to give them a taste of what I've learned, and I felt like the taste that I gave them was probably rancid. I slipped up on that and that kind of made me upset.

For the following week, he assigned himself a five-page essay, so he can present his thoughts more coherently.

We will forever detach ourselves from being human. So yeah. Bam.

During another presentation, Joe started to describe a logic problem he learned to solve.

And at that point he says "I know exactly what the answer is." What is the number?

Before he could present the answer and without any prompting from him, the other students formed two small groups and solved the problem themselves, using two different approaches.

I like the way that you guys did it. That's a much more innovative way, I feel like, to do it. This is kind of just like, "I don't have anything else, I'm just going to go for it."

The world that we're coming into right now, we're going to really be on our own and we're not going to be able to rely on our elders telling us what to do. It's going to be us telling us what to do, and then responsible for the next generation, trying to help them. And the only way we're going to be able to learn the lessons and be individuals and autonomous is if we do it by ourselves.

Are students capable of teaching themselves and is it enough for teachers to be mentors and coaches? These are the tough questions being asked and tested at the most innovative schools around the world.

I think the more options we have in our schools, the more students we will help develop into the kind of citizens that we need. And that it's okay for you to need a little bit of a different approach from mine.

The power of a young mind is pretty impressive. One, they're so resilient. Two, they're extremely creative. Three, they're fearless. They'll try anything. So the qualities that I feel many, many teenagers have go very well with a program like this, which would make sense, it was developed by a teenager.

And kind of try to apply these

The independent project itself continues to evolve, but the students are taking pride in the fact that dozens of schools around the world have already expressed interest in their model, and may soon replicate their program elsewhere.

It would mean the world to me, the world, if just one other school saw this video and said, "Let's start an independent project." That's all I want.

If that happens, then more students will finally get to have their say in how to reform education for the 21st century.

There may be small errors in this transcript.
About:

This feature comes from Charles Tsai for The Independent Project. Found on the The Washington Post by Nikhil Goyal.

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Published:
Aug 22, 2014

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