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The Independent Project: An Inspiring Experiment in Student-Designed Learning

The Independent Project is an experimental school within a school, designed and implemented by a group of students at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA. I recently wrote about Carl Rogers' ideas regarding student-centered learning, in which a professor (who in this case was also a therapist) plays the role of facilitator, while graduate or undergraduate college students design and implement the course. The Independent Project takes this a step further, empowering a small group of high school students to design and implement an entire curriculum with far less direct involvement of faculty.

I first read about the project in Let Kids Rule the School, a March 2011 NYTimes op-ed piece by Susan Engel, a psychology professor at nearby Williams College, in which she describes a participatory educational framework with minimal input by or supervision from any faculty or staff:

Their guidance counselor was their adviser, consulting with them when the group flagged in energy or encountered an obstacle. Though they sought advice from English, math and science teachers, they were responsible for monitoring one another’s work and giving one another feedback. There were no grades, but at the end of the semester, the students wrote evaluations of their classmates.

During a two-day workshop at the University of Washington Bothell this week on Reinventing University-Level Learning for the 21st Century, I mentioned The Independent Project during a breakout session and wondered whether and how this experiment might be carried out in the context of a university. I started composing a followup email with an annotated link ... and as the annotations grew longer I decided I'd move it over to a blog post (and expand it further).

Since my last visit to The Independent Project web site, a few things have been added:

  • a comprehensive 16-page white paper [PDF] offering more details about exactly how they proposed, sought approval and then designed and implemented the program
  • a map showing other schools that are purportedly experimenting with the program (surprisingly, only two: one in Ireland, another in Mexico)
  • a blog with entries spanning February through March 2012, suggesting they are in the midst of a second trial of the program (a post on logistics highlights the revisions from the first trial)

There is also an extremely well-produced and inspiring 15-minute video, which I will embed below, and then followup with a few highlights.

The video starts out with a quote often - though questionably - attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (author of The Little Prince), while the voice-over ironically talks of the project as "rocking the boat":

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Another relevant and inspiring quote, by educational reformer Ted Sizer, is shown further on:

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

Throughout the video, a number of recurring themes are emphasized by students, faculty and administrators at the school (and the school within the school): independence, exploration, questions, initiative, creativity, curiosity, caring, sharing, confidence, mutual support, engagement, freedom, responsibility, excitement, agency, a thirst for knowledge.

According to Sam Levin, the Monument student who instigated the idea and wrote the white paper mentioned above, students would start each week converging on a set of questions and allocate responsibility for answering those questions among each other, then spend the rest of the week splitting their time between individual endeavors during the mornings and working on collective endeavors in the afternoons. They would gather together to teach each other what they learned each Friday.

Among the questions they asked were:

  • How do plant cells differ from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the mountain?
  • Why do we cry?
  • How does music affect the brain?
  • How do mice react to aromatherapy?
  • What causes innovation?
  • Why do we have art?
  • How does Pixar make a film?
  • How can we clean the Housatonic River?
  • What are the dimensions?
  • Are some infinities bigger than others?
  • Is there science behind old wives' tales?

Among the books they read were

  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White
  • Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Tales of Weird, by Ralph Steadman
  • The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
  • Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
  • Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott

Among the individual endeavors they worked on were

  • a novel
  • a play
  • a compilation of short stories
  • a study of women's trauma and recovery
  • a short film
  • practicing culinary arts
  • learning the piano

Toward the end of the video, Levin summarizes the experience:

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 or different resources.

We learned how to teach in the sense that we learned how to take what we learned and share it with other people, not just because we had to, because we had a presentation, but because it was our responsibility to make sure everyone else in the group benefited from our work.

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 possible.

Susan Engel, who is also interviewed in the video, notes that "the potential for this is right there within the walls of every single school". I'm disappointed, though hardly surprised, that the program does not appear to have gone viral. While the potential for such student-designed learning may be present in any school, I suspect most students would not be sufficiently motivated to expend the energy to design and implement their own curriculum.

Even if a sufficient number of students were sufficiently motivated, there would still be the problem(s) of scale. One of the things I'm re-learning about academia - which is also being learned by participants in the Occupy movement - is that self-governance requires a considerable investment of time and energy ... and it's very difficult to avoid the imposition of structure (aka bureaucracy) as the size of the self-governing body expands.

With the growing array of online resources freely available for learning, including videos from the Khan Academy, massive online open courses from traditional universities as well as startups, and the Peeragogy Handbook Project (to name just a few), the potential for learning increasingly extends far beyond the walls of any single school. Indeed, this expanding potential, and the growing uncertainty about the role universities might play, is the motivation behind the UWB workshop this week.

One of the outcomes of the workshop was a commitment - at least among some of the participants - to undertake more experiments in our cultivation of learning opportunities ... some of which I'm hoping will incorporate the insights and experiences from The Independent Project.

Update: Sam Levin, who is now at University of Oxford, shared some updates with me during a Skype call, which I'll summarize below.

  • Sam has also helped instigate other experimental projects involving high school students, such as Project Sprout and The Future Project.
  • The Independent Project has been contacted by approximately 200 schools from around the world, many of which are implementing their own variations.
  • During the first experiment (in Fall 2010), the participating students were awarded up to 6.5 "public school credits" which counted toward graduation but did not count toward any of the individual distribution requirements (e.g., English or Math), so some students needed to double up in preceding or succeeding years to ensure they met all the requirements.
  • The second experiment is going on now (Spring 2012), and starting in the Fall of 2012, the school will make The Independent Project a permanent part of their program, offer it for a full year (vs. a single semester), and allow students to apply credits toward individual requirements.

Much to my surprise, Sam is not aware of any researchers who are evaluating the current or past instantiations of The Independent Project at MMRHS or any other schools. He suspects this may be due, in part, to the difficulty of assessment (in general, and specifically in the case of a program where students determine their own assessment paradigm). I may be wrong, but this seems like a HUGE opportunity for researchers interested in educational innovation.

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