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Are Student-Run Schools the Way to Go?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

by Samuel Levin, member of the Learning 2030 Forum

Three years ago I designed and implemented a school-within-a-school at my public high school in Western Massachusetts. We called it The Independent Project.

This school within a school was entirely run by its students. The pilot edition was only one semester long. And, in that first year, there were only eight pupils. 

Those eight high schoolers spanned the academic spectrum from high-flyers bound for the Ivy League to students assigned special needs tutoring. Right now, I only want to talk about one of them: Marco. 

Even if it just worked for one student…

Had it not been for the Independent Project, Marco would have dropped out of high school. He failed most of his classes, struggled to read, and towards the end of his junior year, he often just didn’t show up at all. 

He was pushed by his guidance counselor into trying The Independent Project in its pilot semester, and, even though he thought it seemed a little stupid at first, he enrolled. 

Half of Marco’s day was dedicated to his Individual Endeavor; a singular enterprise that could be anything he wanted, as long as it could last him the whole semester and it was something he was excited about. 

Revealing a talented learner

He balked at first, telling the other students that he didn’t have a passion, but ultimately admitted he had always wanted to learn an instrument, and settled on learning to play the jazz piano. 

Starting with learning to read music, he worked at it every day, and at the end of the semester, he performed a concert to a live audience.

By then, he was skilled enough to improvise during the performance; a strong sign of a true jazz musician.

Teaching each other what matters

Although he had dyslexia, and had never actually read a book in his time at high school, he became committed to reading the novels that were selected each week by the other students. 

He struggled at times, and once or twice became frustrated with the other students for reading too quickly. But he read all nine novels, by authors such as Faulkner, Vonnegut, Auster, and Wilde. 

He almost dropped the program when he found out math was a requirement. But, after pushing himself, he discovered the equations behind poker, and realized that math was a part of his world. 

He’ll never be a mathematician, but he now has a deeper understanding of the language of mathematics and its role in his life. 

30,000+ YouTube viewers can’t be wrong

At the end of the semester, for the Collective Endeavor, Marco helped the group make a short documentary about The Independent Project, which received over 30,000 views, and led to schools all over the world working to create their own version of the Project.

This is a success story, and I could tell similar ones for every other student in program. 

A lesson for 2030

That’s one thing I’d like to do in Waterloo during Equinox Summit: Learning 2030: talk about how The Independent Project’s successes show us that giving young people more agency and authorship over their own education can unleash the hunger, curiosity, and passion for learning that is currently dormant in most students. 

I also want to talk about some of the failures – what didn’t work about The Independent Project, and how that can inform our attempts to design better schools for the future. 

Mission-accomplished (?)

Finally, I’d like to mention that Marco graduated high school, much to the surprise of some of the teachers in the school. 

Shortly after that, he formed his own jazz band. 

For me, that’s a clear measure of success. 

But “number of new jazz bands formed” is not a national measure of success we can use to hold schools accountable. 

I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges on the way to the future, and I hope we can tackle this problem in Waterloo this fall.

In the school of tomorrow, how are we going to create standards that measure the things that really matter?

Samuel Levin is a student at Oxford University and founder of The Independent Project at Monument Mountain High School and is a Forum member for Waterloo Global Science Initiative's upcoming Equinox Summit: Learning 2030.

Watch Samuel's keynote address at Cornell University’s Youth Grow Summit