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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Project 10,000

Last night I read the incredible manifesto “Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?” by Seth Godin. Pat Farenga discussed the article from a homeschooling perspective back in March, but I’ve been thinking all day about how we could put into practice the ideas that Godin discusses in the manifesto.

Over the last year I’ve been exploring ideas of student choice in my own English classroom. Students are able to pick what they want to study (from a list of about 40 topics), and then choose how they respond to each unit. They can independently read each module, or they can work in partners, or in small groups. If they want, they could work with me shoulder-to-shoulder for the entire unit.

Classes look very different from the rest of the school: I rarely stand up at the front of the class and lecture, and it’s rare that two people are working on the same thing. Back in November I  wrote another post here on the Catalyst explaining my frustration with some students who weren’t using their time to its greatest potential. In the comments, Nance Confer said it sounded like my students were going through the process of deschooling  — but for only one period a day. Is it any wonder that they’d see the freedom in my class as a break?

I’ve been pondering that comment over the past few months, and I have an idea on how to bridge public schooling with the type of freedom found at Sudbury Valley or Summerhill. Here goes:

PROJECT 10,000

Godin mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in his manifesto, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours for somebody to become an expert in a field. If that’s the case, then I’m half-way to becoming an expert teacher, and I’m already an expert video gamer. Everything else in my life – reading, writing, scholarly analysis, and so on – is far below the 10,000 hour mark. But what if we were to give students in school the opportunity to get a head start on becoming an expert in a field of their own choice?

Imagine a class of about 20 where students were able to pursue an idea that they found exciting. This class would take place all day for an entire semester. Students would have the freedom to pursue what they were interested in, but also had the resources of an entire public school at their disposal. One of the classes that Godin wanted to see being taught was “How to design and build a small house” – let’s use that as an example.

Matthew’s passion is design and architecture, and he find this idea absolutely thrilling. So, over the course of the semester, he sits in on AutoCAD classes at his school, and takes woodworking classes during the day as well. When he’s not in these formal learning environments, he’s back in the Project 10,000 class, working on sketches and ideas for his own house. He also makes appointments once in a while to see a local architect to see if there’s anything that he’s missing in his planning stage.

Finally, Matthew reaches the point where he’s ready to start building. He purchases materials and starts working on a 100 sq ft tiny house (a la The house is actually on-campus, out near the athletic fields.

By the end of the semester, Matthew has made a few serious missteps and has needed to fix quite a few mistakes, but the house is finished. At the open house at the end of the semester, friends, family members, and school staff are able to see the Project 10,000 presentations, including the tiny house by Matthew. But other students have been working on their own projects: Godin mentions “How to do something that no one has ever done before” and “Improv” as two other classes that he’d like to see in schools. These projects aren’t as hands-on or extensive, but they require just as much intellectual thought, and the final projects require just as much work.


There are obstacles to a project like this. In Alberta, funding is tied directly to senior high credits. Creative accounting could allow for the government to partially fund this project: perhaps students write blog entries and give speeches about their projects, and therefore work towards an English class; or perhaps they’re able to receive special project credits on their own specialized projects. However, this wouldn’t be enough to fund a teacher for an entire semester. The school division or the provincial government would need to step in to provide funding.

Another obstacle would be the impediance towards a student’s education. Most certainly, taking a semester “off school” to work on this would mean that a student might graduate a semester later than her peers. This might be a dealbreaker for some students/parents who would otherwise be interested in this project.

Finally, what happens if, in the words of Gob Bluth, a student gets two months into this project and realises that they’ve made a huge mistake? The freedom is overwhelming, and the need for self-discipline and internal motivation is essential. In a Sudbury Valley school, there’s all the time in the world to adapt to that schooling method; in this project embedded within a public school system, it’s one semester and done. It might mean that (gasp!) a student fails the project.


I desperately want to see the freedom offered by Summerhill and Sudbury Valley in public schools. I love the idea of these schools, but it makes me depressed to think  that only a tiny percentage of students world-wide have access to this kind of educational freedom. As a public educator, I have a responsibility to teach children who don’t necessarily want to be there, who aren’t given a lot of freedom, who spend the majority of their days doing exactly what their teachers tell them to do. This, in my opinion, is ethically and morally wrong.

So, Cooperative Catalyst? Do I have something here worth bringing to my school board, or am I missing something?


Godin, Seth. Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?

The Independent Project.

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


7 thoughts on “Project 10,000

  1. I think the idea of a project based curriculum would be great, tying in with the idea of PBL that educators are currently establishing. The idea of having 10,00 hours of dedicated attention- with the end goal of becoming an expert in the field- is tantalizing. Imagine if that’s all school became? A series of projects, each tackled 10,00 hours at a time, with guidance and suggestions from teachers (or other beings maybe more knowledgeable on a certain subject). Imagine how many things we could truly master. In the current system, even after four years of rigorous schooling, most of us haven’t yet mastered any one subject…that’s supposed to be the job of college (and getting a masters degree). But nowadays, it takes more than just attending (or even passing, or excelling at) classes to get into a college and do something in life. However, if more students already had a few big accomplishments under their belt, they’d be able to expand their knowledge further and do more out of college. Imagine that…

    Posted by Tara S | April 8, 2012, 9:52 pm
    • That’s what I’m thinking. School prepares students really well for memorisation and taking orders, but it doesn’t do a good job and promoting autonomy, creativity, or self-discipline. Plus, it certainly doesn’t take into account a student’s personal interests.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | April 9, 2012, 1:10 am
  2. I love this idea. I’m often envious of high school teachers because they can implement the student led classroom. In elementary school it is much more difficult. I’m going to spend some time thinking about how it can be done. Any ideas would be most welcome.

    I’m in Ontario and we would have similar problems with funding. In my board we would have even more problems with the powers that be….they seem to be very formulaic in their thinking about instruction. Sigh.

    Posted by Erin | April 9, 2012, 8:46 am
  3. The free school model is definitely worth emulating – I wouldn’t stop at bringing it to your school board; I’d go to your parents and other possible backers, as well.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 9, 2012, 3:50 pm
    • I’m worried about the ramifications of bringing it to other stakeholders outside the school — got my knuckles rapped for doing something similar, and it was just a meeting with other teachers & parents. On the other hand, I think this idea has a lot of potential. Any other suggestions for other backers? Kickstarter? (Kidding… I think…)

      Posted by alanthefriesen | April 10, 2012, 7:34 pm
      • In starting a new learning space, you are beholden to your backers. I fully acknowledge your concerns and share your curiosity about revenue streams. I would say that “choosing” the culture/community in which to start a new space is essential because that “space” influences where you look for support and determines what kind of support is available to you, as well as what kinds of requirements you have to meet to get that support. I might suggest looking at foundations that support long-term mentoring and experience building in particular disciplines outside of school, such as youth development initiatives in digital media production and other forms of making, if the space doesn’t have to be part of a pre-existing school or school system. Let me know if I can be of any help bouncing around ideas on other channels.

        Best wishes,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | April 10, 2012, 9:28 pm
        • Great thinking! I fear I must agree with Chad that in order to be “disruptive” like this you’d need a whole new set of stakeholders (parents, foundations, etc.). Do you have the equivalent of charter schools up there?

          I’ve been doing my own ‘Blue Sky’ thinking about what such a project-based school might look like: — would love to get your thoughts!

          Posted by Dr. Ernie | April 13, 2012, 9:40 am

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