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:
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 http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com). 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?
The Independent Project.