“I just couldn’t do it everyday,” my friend told me recently, referring to her high school experience. “So my mom let me take some, shall we say, mental health days? I couldn’t handle doing school like that everyday. It was so…so…”
“Prison-like?” I offered.
“YES!” she responded emphatically. We discovered we were in complete agreement about how the monotonous and often demeaning and degrading life of a high schooler can impede learning.
Some people thrive in high school. My husband is one of those people. He became captain of his swim team, was crowned prom king, and delivered a valedictorian speech many in his home town still remember. He recalls those days fondly. He shares about good relationships with teachers, interesting school projects, and lots of time with a great group of friends. That’s nice.
As for me? Well, let’s put it this way: when my future children hit that age, God help me, I’ll need to keep my mouth shut. Granted, I’m sure my attitude could have been better about it all. I know I had little to complain about. I grew up in a relatively affluent area and went through a full set of AP courses. Our school was not strapped for cash which meant they could offer programs in the arts. I didn’t need to worry about my safety like so many kids in urban high schools must. Despite these advantages, even ten years later I can’t shake the memories of being interrogated by hall monitors who doubted I was really going to the bathroom. I remember being called “Sweetie” by the principal who didn’t seem to ever recall my name. I remember that same principal punishing me for something I didn’t do and laughing in my face when I claimed innocence. And I was a good kid! But that’s just it. I was a kid. Not a person.
It is not surprising that this dehumanizing effect, added to the monotony of every day structured the same way, leads to many students feeling trapped. It’s a painful irony, then, that learning can and should be a liberating force. I remember the Paul Simon lyric in the song Kodachrome, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” What did I learn in high school? A lot of stuff, probably. But did I really learn it, or did I just mentally collect it long enough to pass a test? Unfortunately, I think it was the latter. Because school was structured so much like a conveyor belt, and because there were so few moments to reflect on the significance of the content presented in class or how it would apply to our lives, it was easy to go numb and just wait for it to be over. Looking back, I think my goal was to get good grades as a way to ‘stick it to the man,’ and to get into a fancy enough school so I could shake the dust of my shoes and say, “Sayonara, suckaas!” Healthy? Of course not. But that’s how I felt. It wasn’t until I was half-way through college that I realized that this whole education thing was not something I was forced to do, but something I got to do. I could sculpt it however I wanted so as to cultivate and prepare my mind for a future in solving problems and creating new things in this world.
So is there a better way? Is it just a crap shoot for which kids really get to learn? Do we need more top-down changes from our state capitols? Heaven forbid!
What we need is to ask learners what would help them learn. Students might just surprise you by how much they can accomplish when they own their own education.
I recently stumbled across this article and video about an experiment initiated by a high school senior a few years ago at Monument Mountain High School in Massachusetts. In this experiment, called the Independent Project, a group of students takes a whole semester to study questions that interest them. Teachers are facilitators who check in on their progress and offer themselves as resources when the students need them. Each Monday, the students choose their questions for the week. Each Friday, the students gather to present their findings and receive constructive criticism. Alongside this research, students work on what they call an independent endeavor, which is a larger goal they hope to achieve by the end of the semester. Students have taken this opportunity to learn musical instruments, write novels, and study larger topics. Watch the video to get the gist of the program.
Efforts like this are a ray of hope in our increasingly stringent, top-down school environments. In this case, you have students, teachers, and administrators working together toward a common, student-centered goal. You see a belief that more liberty, rather than more structure, can positively impact a student’s ability to engage with and retain new content. See how the principal advocates that learners need to be completed invested. “We can’t be moving every kind of human being through the same gate.” Praise God! It is wonderful to hear both the struggling students and the high achievers agree that the program was effective because they could customize it to their passions and pace. These students were far from stuck. They were really growing. What’s more, I’d put good money on these students remembering what they studied precisely because they didn’t have to learn it for a test. The questions came from them, and the answers came from their own efforts. Through owning the process, their worlds expanded.
What’s really impressive about this program, though, in addition to making the immediate learning experience more pleasant and effective for the students, is the impact all of this collaboration will have on these kids’ future work lives. In life, no matter what we do vocationally, we will all have to work with other people. We need to communicate our thoughts well enough so people can be on the same page. We need to affirm people when critiquing their ideas, helping them improve while they help us do likewise. In most school environments, projects tend to be so heavily structured that there is little time for any real debate or deeper exploration. There are few opportunities for students to get invested enough in a topic that they can make a passionate argument. In these cases, the students graduate and suddenly find themselves unprepared to persuade bosses and coworkers that their ideas are good. These skills come only from practice and from making mistakes, and it is a long, hard road if we don’t get in any practice early on. This video shows the safe spaces in which these kids are getting to try their hand without the fear of losing a job. If they say something they didn’t mean, or if they need to clarify points once challenged, there is the freedom to do that. There is a balance of independence and dependence that reflects the real world without being out in it. Consider what the adviser said, “It’s called the independent project but I don’t think it could be any more dependent. This program is dependent on people working together. It’s dependent on people pushing each other, giving constructive criticism, giving support, giving praise. It’s dependent on people using resources, finding those resources. It’s dependent on people being creative, learning how to ask a question.” These are all skills we desperately need in the real world. Think about how constructive and positive our society would be if we had more people who were practiced and artful with their creative collaboration!
We need more programs like this in our schools. We need more pathways for people to learn in ways that suit them best. If any of you are educators, I want to encourage you to experiment with giving your students more freedom. Don’t just give them the answers because you are running out of time. Let them shape the experiment. Let them solve the problems themselves. Change the structure of the classroom to include more time for kids to pursue their own questions. The results could be not only beautiful, but could potentially change the course of our culture.