Matthew Vernon Whalan: Lessons from a Self-Directed Learner


“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. Last March, I spoke with Levin and wrote about this endeavor in a feature post, “What if Kids Ruled School.”

Recently, Tsai put me in touch with Matthew Vernon Whalan, a recent graduate of the Independent Project, who shared with me his story…

I was told at five years old that I would soon be entering kindergarten. I was on the staircase in my mother’s house, and when she told me, I asked her why. I don’t remember what her response was, but I remember telling her that I would not go. Then she told me that we would go and see what it was like, and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to go. She led me into the classroom, holding my hand. I took one look around and said, “I don’t think I want to go.” After enough crying, she left me there, and from that point onward I would go to school every day for the next 12 years.

I struggled in school every year. Something in me refused to fully engage. Was I lazy? Or dumb? I was puzzled: Why couldn’t I do well in school? The answer became clearer when I started freshman year of high school. That’s when I began writing essays, poems, and short stories during my own time. An English teacher’s dream. However, the more creatively engaged I became outside of school, the more my grades dropped. The more my grades dropped, the less I cared about school.

This vicious cycle continued until Sam Levin, a fellow student, and Mike Powell, the guidance counselor, introduced the Independent Project, a student-run “school within a school.” In this program, students would learn only what they wanted to learn within each core area, and study it on their own. We’d also choose an individual endeavor, which could be any project or area of study to pursue or the duration of the term.

Within this environment, I had the freedom to write two-to-four hours a day. In my first year, I wrote a full-length novel and studied the elements and origins of philosophical fiction. In my second year, I wrote several short stories and poems, and a fifty-page essay about a death row inmate in Alabama, which I then published as “The Little Book of Freedom.” In my third year, after some confusion over what my individual endeavor would be, I worked on another novel, wrote several short stories, reflective essays, and poems. By that time, I had accumulated about 2,000 pages of creative writing.

I also researched math, science, and social science topics based on my own interests. For example, in science, I studied the effects of global warming and climate change on the arctic ice caps. In math, I figured out how many times my novel could fit in the Grand Canyon. And in social sciences, I spent four weeks studying the life and works of author W. Somerset Maugham.

The Independent Project took up one semester each year. Outside of this program, though, my grades remained low. As much as I loved the new learning environment, it didn’t magically make me a “better student” in traditional school. Some of my peers found that when they transitioned back into traditional schooling, they performed better in their classes than ever before. But after finding tremendous value in self-directed learning, I struggled, once again, through math problems and science labs—most of which I would forget about as soon as I saw a passing D assignment, quiz or test handed-back to me.

Through the Independent Project, I figured out why I had struggled in school and which learning environments make me thrive—and which don’t. I learn best when I am in control of my own education, doing what I love, and I learn best when I am learning about myself and learning among peers, especially those who are also passionate and who are also learning about themselves. In fact, this is not just how I learn best; it is how I learn at all. I also realized that I don’t hate math and science. I hate the way they are taught.

I also came to understand that we are, by nature, curious creatures, and we do not need to be told what to learn and how. Given the right environment, as well as freedom and trust from adults, young people will want to learn. How could we not? We are opening our eyes to a world, a universe, full of things to learn. It is all new to us!

Most kids I know are insulted by the notion that they need a building, teachers, bells, and rules in order to learn—just the opposite. Young people are most interested and become most interesting when they are free to be curious and creative.

This fall, I am attending Marlboro College in Vermont, a small school that embraces many of the same values as the Independent Project. Classes there are driven by group discussion rather than lectures. Strong relationships are emphasized. Outdoor activities such as hiking and biking are encouraged as a means of learning through nature. With no prerequisites, students learn what truly interests them. Professors help students develop a unique plan of study rather than choose a prefabricated major. Curiosity, creativity, independence, and the sharing of knowledge and passion drive learning at Marlboro. These are the same forces, I believe, that can help us lead a real and examined life both inside and outside of school.

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 November 8, 2013


    Great article that follows the same philosophy as Sir Ken Robinson, who is my educational hero. We all are endowed with gifts and talents, the problem lies in discovering what they are. Self directed learning, project based learning and passion learning are all synonymous. The educational system needs fixing. Data driven education is crushing so many potential, valuable and creative souls.

  • Reply December 19, 2013


    I agree with nearly all your points many of our great scientiest discovered learning as you have but not all students would strive in that system, many would choose not to engage in education at all and our current economic system would cease to function, the economics need changed then eduction can change

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