What If Kids Ruled School?

I log onto Tioki and click on a YouTube link posted by Ngan Pham, an aspiring educator from Berkeley, California.

“If students designed their own schools, what would school look like?” asks journalist Charles Tsai, as he cuts to a student comfortably talking about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment “Probably something like this. No quizzes. No grades. Not even classes. And most of the time, no teachers or any adults in the classroom.”

I watch the video in awe of the motivated and self-directed students involved in this endeavor, dubbed “The Independent Project” by Samuel Levin—who, in 2008 as a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, originally proposed this endeavor.

I’m eager to speak with Levin, who now studies biology at Oxford, about how he came up with his idea.

In 2007, Levin launched Project Spout, an independent, student-led initiative to grow organic foods on campus. Levin gained national recognition for that project, and he has delivered high-profile speeches about it.

“There would be all of these students showing up at 8 a.m. to work in the garden without getting any credit, any money, anything, any reward of any sort of external kind,” Levin says. “And they were doing it because they loved it, because they cared about it, and because there was a mission behind it—which was to change the way people think about food and where it comes from.”

Project Sprout convinced Levin that young people can do “enormously powerful things,” and that American public education isn’t doing an effective job of unleashing similar passion and commitment. Levin expressed this frustration to his mother, who suggested that he create his own school—and that’s exactly what he did.

“You need people to be more excited about coming to school,” Levin says. “No matter how much you love something, there will always be days you won’t be excited to do it. But if every day you’re not excited to do it, that’s a problem.”

Mike Powell, the guidance counselor at Monument Mountain, helped Levin get the program off the ground. Since the beginning, he has served as the head faculty advisor, and I’m interested to learn how The Independent Project works.

Students spend parts of the semester-long initiative investigating self-directed topics in history, science, and math. They study English throughout the program, and each selects a book for group study. Teachers from each core department (save for math, which Powell says he is working on) make themselves available, and this counts as one of their course loads.

But unless approached with an inquiry, teachers remain uninvolved—no matter how off-topic class might become.

I recall an important message that my colleague and mentor Mark Hayes shared with me five years ago. At some point, learning for many students no longer becomes about satisfying their own interests and goals, but about meeting largely generic standards set by others.

“Because students depend on forces outside themselves for direction and accountability, their capacity for learning how they learn and their own ability to judge their work becomes stunted,” Hayes says. “If one of the key goals of education is to develop students who can think effectively, removing self-direction and intrinsic motivation seriously hinders the development of metacognition.”

In a Jan. 26 Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss echoes Hayes’s remarks: “The decision by teachers at Garfield High School to boycott the state’s Measures of Academy Progress because, they say, the exams don’t evaluate learning and are a waste of time is fueling a growing debate about the misuse of standardized tests in public education.”

Levin is also concerned with how public schools teaches science, focusing on “teaching content rather than teaching people to think like scientists.” He is eager to discuss a misplaced emphasis on content-based assessment.

“Unfortunately, the things that matter most to be measured—things like being curious, being able to master something, having drive—are the hardest things to measure,” Levin says.

Clearly, something needs to change. Whether The Independent Project flourishes or fails (and I’m betting on the former), I’m eternally grateful that Levin and Powell are shaking things up.

I have rarely spoken with such an articulate student as Max Weiner, a junior and new member of The Independent Project. He eloquently expresses a deep desire for learning and self-improvement. In four weeks of the program, he says, he has learned more than he would have in ten weeks of regular classes.

“I’m actually a straight-A student, but I just wasn’t impressed or challenged by my classes,” Weiner says. “I didn’t like the size of my classes…and I just wanted to be challenged in a very productive learning environment. I also wanted to be in charge of what I learned.”

I’m not surprised to learn that Weiner is a self-described introvert, and that he prefers to work alone. I recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet.

I ask Weiner if he misses the traditional classroom environment, and how effective he finds this self-directed approach.

“For me it was totally relieving,” he says. “I was really stressed out with school. The first week I learned so much. It was a shock, but it was great. I felt awesome. You know how that feels, when you know you just got a lot of work done? It felt pretty good to me, and it was relieving.”

On Mondays, students brainstorm questions that each wants to investigate for the remainder of the week. On Fridays, individuals teach others about their findings and receive feedback about their work from peers. Weiner holds himself accountable for making effective use of his time.

“If we want to work on science all day and stay in the room all day, that’s fine. I’ll stay in the room for a couple of periods in the morning, and then I’ll go to the library for a period and check out some books.”

This group is currently studying science, and almost daily, Weiner says, he seeks out help from Lisa Baldwin, a chemistry teacher who helps him focus his learning and frame weekly questions.

“She’s been a great help to me, and without her, I really couldn’t have done this,” Weiner says.

As I learn more about this project, I think of Professor Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. He is a leading authority on online learning, and we share a particularly deep passion for self-directed instruction.

“If you can create environments, even physical ones, that show how to go about structuring the engagements with a guide, with a mentor, with a facilitator where and when needed, those examples will illuminate what could happen online in a much larger forum,” Bonk says.

Bonk thinks highly of what he has read about The Independent Project, and I admire his pragmatism. It takes longer for many schools to acclimate to change, he says, especially something as drastic as giving complete control of curriculum and learning to students.

“Hence, one should not look at this and say it can’t be done here,” Bonk says. “Instead, the question one should ask is what is possible or a unique opportunity for students to [direct] their own learning for a day or a week or a month or an entire semester.”

I always love speaking with Bonk, a gifted scholar whose immense knowledge (even beyond his field) provides me with endless resources. He points me to Big Picture Learning, which since 1995 has encouraged schools across the country to embrace individualized instruction and alternative education.

“All the components that make up the student’s learning experience–the curriculum; the learning environment; the use of time during the school day; the choice of workshops or college classes; the focus and depth of investigation through the Big Picture learning goals–[are] developed based on the student’s individual interests, talents, and needs,” the organization’s web site says.

Powell appreciates Tsai’s video, which “definitely captured what this program was designed to do.”

Still, I sense some disappointment in his voice. It’s as if despite the program’s success, it hasn’t met expectations. The Independent Project is now in its third year, but Powell isn’t ready to call any press conferences—especially since this is the first time students in the program can earn core academic credit.

“So this is a very pivotal year whether we’ll continue or not, and the kids all know that,” Powell says. “They know that if it’s not a solid semester, then this could be the last time. I have to wait and see on that one.”

Since the program’s launch, critics within and beyond Monument Mountain have expressed skepticism.

In my government class, students are studying challenges facing the American school system, including crowdedness, ineffective pedagogy and poor assessment. I tell them about The Independent Project and ask whether this program could serve as a viable learning alternative.

They are intrigued, and several wish they could partake in such a program. But others are more dubious, asking how students in the program are assessed and whether they receive grades or credit?

Powell says that students don’t receive grades, and that it’s impossible to fail. Instead, students have the opportunity to receive course credit, granted by a faculty advisory board that assesses student work at the end of the semester.

“There’s no level. There’s no grade. There’s no test, so to speak,” Powell says. “It opens up the door to allow good collaboration and for people to learn from each other, which has been really, really successful.”

Weiner echoes these remarks, but I ask him to explain some of the program’s biggest challenges. Specifically, I request that he respond to criticism that The Independent Project makes it easier and more tempting for students to slack off.

“Some kids have problems with motivation, and I think their intention is good,” Weiner says. “They want to use this program to teach themselves, but they really just can’t bring themselves to do it because it is difficult to do. It’s really tough. And to keep momentum [through] an entire semester —there’s a lot of weight of your back.”

Levin also understands skepticism, and while he considers the program a success (at least so far), he would like to see the program improve.

Levin says he values peer feedback, and he would never wish to do away with such an important learning component. While things may have changed since he graduated, Levin says, teachers are too far removed from the learning experience, and this wasn’t his original intention.

“There [are] very few things as valuable as having a teacher there who is an expert…[and] who says ‘okay, but this isn’t good enough,’ or ‘okay, but your question wasn’t clear enough,’ or ‘okay, but your should have looked through more journal articles,’ Levin says, adding that farmers and teachers are “the salt of the earth.”

I am floored by Levin’s authenticity, and with each thought he makes perfectly plain just how much he cares about education. We speak about the individual endeavor—a core component of the project that has just one requirement: students must do something that they are passionate about, and be prepared to share the culmination of their work at an end-of-semester rendition.

Whether learning the piano, writing a novel, or mastering the physics of skateboarding, students take full ownership of their endeavors.

Weiner says that music is “his life,” and plans to compose and arrange an original jazz album.

“I actually just got this huge book . . . by the Berkeley College of Music press on jazz composition to help me out,” Weiner says. “I’m strengthening my knowledge of music composition, which is really what I wanted to do with my school year—to really get my composition and theory knowledge very sharp.”

Weiner wants to pursue music in college and beyond, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to use this time to his advantage. Had he no prior knowledge of music theory, nor been playing the bass for eight years, his endeavor would have been impossible. With this in mind, I ask Weiner if The Independent Project is better suited to those who have a clear idea of what they want to pursue.

“I think so, but I think a majority of kids in the program have no idea what they want to do once they leave high school,” he says. “I think the program should be suited for people who have a very clear idea of what they want to do, but there are kids in the program who are very successful and have no idea what they are going to do.”

In the program’s first year, for his individual endeavor, a senior made a mockumentary, titled The Best School in America. Students and teachers play parodies of themselves, akin to what Modern Family and The Office offer viewers.

The individual endeavor fits perfectly with Levin’s philosophy that skills trump content.

“Once you know the skills, you can go out and get the content on your own.”

No matter The Independent Project’s ultimate fate, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Powell, Levin, the students involved in this program, and Monument Mountain Regional High School for piloting this undertaking. Thanks to their brave endeavor, I’m confident that more educators will think about how they too can seek ways to improve educating current and future generations.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply March 5, 2013

    Charles Tsai

    Thanks for this reporting, David. I really enjoyed all these interviews. I have a second video I plan to release… a discussion among the students about how to measure success in a program like this.

    Personally, I see this as an opportunity for students in the public school system to experience a completely different mode of learning. I think it can be very powerful if every student can be given one semester to learn in a self-directed manner. This doesn’t have to be the only way to learn or even replace the entire educational system.

    Also, I think it would be unfair to expect this model to deliver every type of learning outcome we want. No single model can do that. What we want in our educational system, I think, is diversity of approaches…. and of course, some efficient way to manage all the different models and pathways. But I have faith we’ll figure it out.


  • Reply March 27, 2013

    Mike Sadofsky

    “At Sudbury Valley School, students from preschool through high school age explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways. They learn to think for themselves, and learn to use Information Age tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical issues. Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.
    rust and respect are the keys to the school’s success. Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.

    udbury Valley School was founded in 1968.”

    More at http://www.sudval.org

  • Reply July 18, 2013

    Lua Wells

    I just happened upon a link to this great article about The Independent Project, and really loved all the videos and audio interviews!! Thank you for putting all this info together! I come from an unschooling background (mother of two unschoolers, that is) and am excited to learn about more self-directed learning programs becoming available in public and private schools. I strongly believe that the more freedom we give kids to direct their own educations, the more they learn, but it’s still so hard for people to believe it works. Thanks for spreading the news about this and other innovations in education!

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