Whether he knew it or not, Sam Levin started a little movement when he was a freshman in high school. When he complained to his mom that he and his classmates hated school, she responded with, “Why don’t you just make your own school?”
So he did.
As a freshman, Sam took a small step. According to an article from Time, Sam launched “a school-wide garden that was solely cared for by students; some woke up early on Saturdays to work with the plants. The garden is still functioning and serves at-need families in the community. After witnessing the commitment that his classmates had to nurturing something they had created themselves, Levin was convinced that they were capable of putting more time and energy into their studies,” as long as they got to own it. This was the only way he figured they would care about their subjects.
At Mountain Regional High School, in Massachusetts, a handful of students now enjoy what’s called the Independent Project. This program was created by students as sort of a “school within a school.” Each class features 10 students from various backgrounds and levels of GPA. The students in the program are supervised by teachers, but they act more like coaches rather than lecturers. No more than four faculty members advise any one class, and their role is limited to supporting the students and providing advice when needed.
And boy has it made a difference in student engagement.
The Missing Ingredients
One of the reasons this project works is that it’s added a component that’s missing in so many conventional classrooms in our school system. Others have made this discovery across our country, and it’s transforming both students and teachers alike. Why? Let me suggest a few reasons.
- The students own how they reach the goal.
Rather than the subject originating with an adult, the students get to work on an issue or project of their choosing. Timeless skills are nurtured, but students remain engaged because they got to pick it. The job of the instructor is more to “expose” than to “impose.” They learn the skills every school requires them to learn, but just in their own methodology. Students support what they help create.
- The students are active and moving.
Did you know that climbing a tree and balancing on a beam can dramatically improve cognitive skills, according to one study? We know this intuitively, don’t we? According to a 2015 Bayer Survey Facts of Science Education, “nearly all teachers believe ‘hands on’ science lessons serve kids best, but 4 out of 5 teachers say their school teaches for the test.” Students need to be active.
- The verbal matches the visual.
Another study found that children who were encouraged to gesture while learning retained more of what they had learned. These successful, transformative courses are different in that the students are hearing, seeing and gesturing, which connects with every learning style: kinesthetic, visual or verbal. It’s difficult in a traditional classroom period to reach various learning styles.
- The students actually do the teaching.
According to a study, people learn better when they expect to teach the information to another person. We all know this is true, but adults continue to do most of the talking. I know a professor who let’s his students do all the teaching when reviewing for the mid-term and final examinations. And they always fair better.
Do you see a common thread? All of these missing ingredients are driven by corresponding movements. Decisions. Application. Experience.
This research confirms that when students take personal responsibility for their learning, it pushes them to use their own talents to creatively problem solve. The Time article is right: this “class framework is similar to what will be expected of them in college and in the workforce, when they have to make their own decisions.”
I love what high school senior Matt Whalan commented about this process: “Some kids say, I hate science or I hate math, but what they are really saying is: I hate science class or I hate math class.”
What if we changed our pedagogy and insured that our students really learn?