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Learning at its Best, School Stories, Student Voices

Independent Learning

(Cross Posted from Life’s About the Journey)

I saw this video on “The Independent Project” thanks to a shout out from my old principal Mr. Adams. Within minutes of checking out the premise of the project, their website and this video, I was fascinated and frankly, hooked.

I think the idea behind a self motivated school situated inside a public school (a form that lends itself to more open learning if utilized to its full extent) is brilliant. That a bunch of interested students took focused time to work on a project that really interested them and had a concrete result upholds practically everything I’ve read on “modern education” thus far. Being affirmed in this project are various bits of Daniel Pink’s theories on the wonders of self-motivation, Cal Newport’s arguments promoting focused, concentrated effort and “the big project”, as well the general perceptions that school should fit the individual, and that a “good” school is one that helps further one’s development and instills values, information and ideas that stick and are relevant outside the classroom walls.

I think nowadays, school has come to take on a whole new slew of connotations. But at its core, school is place of learning. That’s it. The barebones definition of school should not require add-ons such as- helps you get into college, helps test-taking skills, a place that makes the district and teachers look good, workforce birther etc. Sure school can do that and help us in more ways than JUST learning, but the learning should come first- not standardized tests, not college, not jobs. Learning to learn, to have knowledge, to be aware to do things that require more than the rudiemntary skill fo filling in the bubble that matches with the memorized answer.

So it shouldn’t matter so much how that learning is achieved. In the video, one of the girls mentions how school “doesn’t help anyone because you’re trying to put people in boxes and humans just don’t fit in boxes.” We are all unique which means that, for better or worse, as a whole, we learn differently. Sure some people learn like others, but without any sort of delineation, teaching the same thing to the masses, regardless of their aptitude, their mindset, their interest or their learning style, is ridiculous and probably “unproductive.”

In the video, one of the group’s advisors mentions how in our society, students are simply passed along from class to class often with little to no enthusiasm or interest. These students sit on a conveyor belt powered by society and its requirements, which moves them glacially from one predestined location to another. By contrast, the students involved in the Independent Project, some of whom weren’t considered “great students” (grades wise) to begin with, are moving themselves. Just by being off the conveyor belt, the self-motivated environment overtime fuels a thirst for knowledge. As one student put it, they started “finding questions in everything” and wanting to learn about anything they stumbled across that they didn’t know.

That’s what makes this project so fantastic, in my opinion.

The students in the video also said some great things about why The Independent Project works and why it is even better, in some ways, than normal school.

  • As one girl said, “knowledge isn’t memorization, it’s more an exploration of facts.” As a result, the rote memorization required in most classes promotes less absorption of knowledge. If the same concepts were explored through a series of well crafted questions, designed to probe different aspects of the idea or problem, and the students found the answers on their own and then shared their findings so everyone got the big picture, the knowledge would be much more concrete. Research shows that being able to effectively teach a concept and answer most questions about said concept, shows a certain level of mastery. As a result of the Independent project, knowledge and information is more personal and you begin to make connections across the board which helps information stick without the help of the usual assessments. One student remarked that “I don’t need tests or quizzes to show I know something. I know that I know it and that I can express myself through it.” That sounds good enough to me…
  • While attending “normal school” prioritization is key. Sadly, if you’re not involved in an organized extra-curricular in your area of interest, other projects that you often have greater interest in are sidelined for school work. As the student who made a film said, “I can either push aside my creativity to struggle on something I simply don’t care about or I go with my creativity and do awful in school.” The beauty of the Independent Project is that it combines the project work with “academic work,” by splitting the day into chunks of time dedicated to those two things.
  • The guy who was effectually the creator of the project said that “it works because students end up doing so many creative things.” The advisor of the project also commented on how having the freedom to learn whatever you want (within the subject of the week) lends “a sense of agency, and that changes the way you act.” I think it’s important that she noted how the freedom influenced their actions, because I feel like some people would discount this project on the belief that nothing productive would emerge and that students would simply goof off. However this teachers statement proves that when given an opportunity to follow their interests “for credit” students will do just that.
  • Finally, another student echoed an idea I’ve supported for a while which shows why the students involved with the independent project thrived. He said that “you can’t achieve the broader goals you want and you don’t have the motivation get good at things unless you make school a place where people wanna be.” Because the students who participated in the independent project WANTED to be there, they accomplished great things.

Other people, more qualified and educated than little old me, also agree with the statements I have proposed above and the fundamental ideas behind the “Independent Project”. For example, this project exemplifies the school that the names I mentioned above preach about. In fact, this is not a passing fad. Some schools even make this sort of thing a potential course offering called the Independent Study. Independent studies, which at my school are offered to seniors, are one semester long (approximately) and usually require approval from a higher power as well as some sort of result at the end of the period but as for the topic, well, the sky is the limit.

There was one quote I heard that I felt really summed up the power of this project. When asked what they learned, a couple of students said something along the lines of “We realized that, everyone has interest in things and everybody truly wants to learn. We learned how to teach, we learned how to learn and we learned how to work. We learned how to ask questions and explore the answers in different methods. we learned to take what we learned and share with the others because it was our responsibility to make sure everyone in the group also learned from our work.”

To teach, to learn, to share, to explore, to listen, and to create- any school has the potential for their students to do this.


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