critical thinking

What if students designed their own schools?

“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.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“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.” Win. 

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.

What if children got to decide what, when, and how they learn?

Meet Logan LaPlate, a kid in Colorado, who is hackschooling his education. He decides what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn. He does research on the internet. He takes field trips in his areas of interest. He creates internships for himself. He spends one day per week in nature. This kid has it down! 

"The concept is that education, like everything else, is open to being hacked or improved, not just by working within the current system, but by going outside the educational establishment to find better ways to accomplish the same goals.  The most innovative entrepreneurs are people who are able to hack the status quo and create something completely new.  The concept is summarized in this quote by Buckminster Fuller, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.""