Education Trends

Student Power!

High school students take control of their own learning. Urban schools reject the deficit model and teach all students as “gifted.” The future of education?

June 17, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

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."

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