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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Power!

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The key commodity in education has been knowledge. It's the reason why we built buildings called schools and required children to come from miles around to sit in a room with the knowledge held in teachers' brains and captured between the covers of textbooks. That model has clearly been disrupted or -- to be honest -- destroyed. (For those traditionalists getting hot under the collar, let me hasten to add that teachers and books are still very important, but in a different way.) When the world's knowledge is not just in teachers' brains but at students' fingertips wherever they are, whenever they need it, shouldn't that change what happens in these places called schools?

The Independent Project

There are many lenses through which we can look at the changes now happening in schools: the Common Core lens (perhaps the most popular), the technology lens, the PD lens, the finance lens, the jobs lens. What about the power lens, the politics of who gets to make decisions about what is learned and how? If knowledge is power, and that power is now in the hands of students, shouldn't that change power relationships in schools?

Consider the unthinkable -- have we reached the point where students could design their own curriculum? Would teachers be willing to assume new roles and share power with their students? Or would this world become like the Lord of the Flies, William Golding's novel of British schoolboys stranded on a desert island, without adult supervision? Hmmm, that didn't go well.

One of my favorite projects where students grasped the power to design their own learning is The Independent Project from Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts. It began when student Sam Levin came home one day and complained to his mother, "I can't watch everyone be unhappy and study stuff that means nothing to them." His mother suggested, "Why don't you start your own school?" To their credit, the school administration allowed a group of eight students, some with good grades, some not, to design their own school-within-a-school for an entire semester.

In his white paper on the project site, Sam describes the thoughtful process through which The Independent Project was approved by school faculty and the school board. The curriculum was structured with morning sessions during which students investigated problems addressing the natural and social sciences or "the literary and mathematical arts." For example, one student studied "how do plant cells from the top of Monument Mountain compare to plant cells from the bottom?" During seven weeks on literature, the students read and discussed six novels and a play, and wrote analyses, alternative endings, or a new piece of fiction in the style of the author.

During afternoons, students worked on their "Individual Endeavors." How did students choose projects requiring sustained, intensive, self-led effort? Did they need to ensure that their projects met the Common Core Standards? As Sam wrote: "The only requirement for the endeavor was that the student was excited about it." Student projects included writing a novel, making a film, and learning to cook (with a final presentation of serving a meal for 80 people).

During the semester, students could turn to any faculty member in the school for help and search out other mentors in the community and online. The guidance counselor served as faculty advisor, with a larger advisory committee consisting of a science, math, and history teacher.

In the end, the first year's pilot was deemed very successful. The eight students, regardless of their previous grades, all produced impressive, substantial, and authentic work. They also learned valuable skills of time management and helping classmates with constructive criticism. Recommendations for improvement included restructuring the math activities to be more rigorous, earlier training in how to critique academic work, and gaining more regular feedback from teachers. (Four videos on Spin Education reflect the remarkable culture of this school.)

Learning in Partnership

Other models exist for giving students more voice and choice in their work and the opportunity to work alongside teachers as collaborators, rather than as subordinates. One of the most successful, as deemed by its 17 years of longevity, is Generation Yes, the subject of an Edutopia film in 2001. GenYes students teach their teachers about technology, serve as technology assistants in the classroom, and maintain the IT infrastructure of the school.

Another example comes from the National Urban Alliance, based in Syosset, New York. I recently heard a presentation from Dr. Yvette Jackson, its CEO and author of The Pedagogy of Confidence. Dr. Jackson was director of gifted programs for New York City schools and felt that equity in education could truly be achieved if we treated all children as "gifted," giving them the choice and independence reserved for gifted and talented youth. She argues that education should build upon students' strengths, rather than starting from deficit models that have been so persistent. In this CNN segment about NUA's work, students teach teachers as part of their professional development. And they attend PD workshops alongside their teachers.

Isn’t it time for a democracy to bring more democratic practices to education? Our schools shouldn't operate as oligarchies with rules made by a small group of adults for the much larger group of students. In South Africa, where I had the chance to work in the early 1990s, black students who had not received their textbooks boycotted their schools. They marched out of their schools and drew attention to the stark inequity of their resources compared with white students. There are millions of students in our own wealthy country who are not receiving the basics of what a 21st century education should provide. It's a wonder that they aren't organizing, boycotting, and marching. Perhaps they don't know the power they have. Wise educators are starting to give them that power. Sam Levin says it best in the lovely final phrase of his white paper: students should now be "the authors of their own learning."

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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njones's picture

Mr. Chen,

I am a senior entering into a teacher education program at my college, during my summer course we are studying constructivism. Our class was given the task to find a blog that exemplified constructivism and your blog went above and beyond my expectations! The idea that school officials gave students the opportunity to facilitate their own learning instead of having a teacher "run" the classroom is amazing. I have not had the opportunity to teach yet but I felt the teacher should be over the learning process and students should be students. Constructivism gives students the opportunity to construct their own knowledge from the world around them shows students that they can be in charge of their own learning. I agree with you when you said "knowledge is power" and these students were demonstrating their own levels of power by creating lessons they wanted to learn about. Would it be beneficial for teachers to facilitate over the tougher subjects such as Math and Science? In your blog you mentioned restructuring the Math activities so they would be more rigorous. I think that this could be done especially if a teacher was there to guide them through the lesson. I really enjoyed reading your blog and I think allowing students the opportunity to facilitate their own learning is beneficial. I would love to see this happen in a classroom! Thanks again for the blog!

Ms. Derriere Williams's picture

The Independent project is a wonderful idea, having students create a school within a school to better fit their personal learning abilities is a project that should be done across the country. Not only is the project fun the students are also learning which is the goal of school to begin with. School has begun to dry students out with too much work that they are not retaining. I believe if more students could participate in the independent project there would be more students enjoying school and wanting to learn.

Zakiya.Provost's picture

Hi, I am reading blogs for one of my classes and I love this blog. I happen to be an early childhood education major and I am able to see from both points of view. I like the idea of students being able to pick what they want to learn it because makes it more meaningful to them. I also like have they are able to construct different fun activities where the teacher just facilitates and gives feedback. I have learned lots of students learn better from their peers because they are able to explain it on their level. This is something I would like to try a little depending on what grade I get so that the learn comes full circle. I would like to thank you for giving those examples of students and teachers working together I had not heard of it yet and I want to read up on it.

markquilleaster's picture

I find it very interesting that a school allowed eight students to create their own curriculum. Students will be more involved in the lesson if its something they actually cared about. This gave students the power to control their own learning and helped them reach new levels of autonomy. This nation future is based off of the students' creativity and I don't think it will be bright if we don't allow the students to think for themselves and solve their own problems.

XavierFain's picture

I like the post and the title. When I see the title it actually comprehends to what the title is saying "Student Power". As I was reading the blog what jumped out at me where the way the kids actually took control as a teacher and learn new key ideas for their future education. The only downfall I think could have been done for differently was integrating it with all of the students instead of just the eight that were chosen. I would like to see everyone in the classroom get those hands on activity just like the chosen few so that they can get a better understanding of the role of a teacher and management skills.

Meagan Heintschel's picture

Hi I am a pre-service teacher that is getting ready to student teach. I read your blog and find it very interesting. Sometimes it is hard to think of students teaching themselves and the teacher simply scaffolding but when you actually test it out it really makes more sense. Many students including myself much rather learn something that they are interested in rather than something that we already know. I feel that when a topic that is being taught that many students may already know these they lose focus, their minds travel and therefore don't pay close attention. Allowing these students to choose what it is that they want to learn and then teaching it to themselves make's learning interesting and meaningful which I believe leads students to remembering the information better. This article helped me to see what a great idea The Independent Project is and how it can really make a difference in the way students learn. Thank you for your knowledge and I hope to one day be able to try this in my own classroom.

Sa'sha Little's picture

I have recently been accepted to the teaching program at Prairie View A&M University and I adored reading how the students were able to take their learning into their own hands. Having the students go through their own process of thinking and having a connection to the independent projects is what allowed the students to understand their own work. Overall, I believe that every student needs to make a personal connection to all their work and their teacher.

DanielleWilson's picture

I find this article very interesting and helpful to my future days in student teaching. Some teachers feel that students shouldn't be allowed to have a say on the curriculum their learning, but I say what would be the point of teaching at all if they're not going to retain the information because they didn't find the real life connection between the two. Students are more inclined to participate in something if they can experience it more so than being lectured. An example one may use can be that you can teach different elements of reading and or math. One you teach the basic foundation of the lesson you can allow students to find examples and teach their peers and that is called "Power Teaching". Most students learn better from their peers because they have that sense of both of them of being equal. They absorb more information when someone who has experienced the same things is explaining it. Peer teaching is a way for yours students to be actively engaged and feel empowered.

Kresenda Foreman's picture

I really like the idea that you let the students create a curriculum on their own, with giving them the power to be the leader it makes them feel in control and actually willing and ready to do the work. Giving students' power motivates them a lot; it gives them something to look forward to coming to school for because they know they are in control and need to get a job done. This is a very good strategy I could us in the future as a teacher.

Jazmyne_w's picture

Hi I am new to the teacher program but your blog has really caught my attention. "Student Power" is very important in today's learning. Students should be able to create their own curriculum, it would help them understand the lesson better. Also by the the students being about to be incontrol of the curriculum would be great for the teacher to get a better connection with the student. If the student and teacher have a connection then this would motivate the student to want to engage in the lesson. I really loved your ideas of "Student Power".

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