This New York Times article has been getting quite a bit of attention this week: “Let Kids Rule the School.” It’s about The Independent Project, a undertaking of 8 high schoolers in Massachusetts, who spent a semester successfully planning and working through their own individual and group curricula. You can read a fuller summary of the Project at the NYT article or there’s a nice video at the Instituted for Democratic Education in America, if you can spare the 15 minutes.
Opinion on the Independent Project is mixed. For example, E.D. Kain, at Forbes, praises the Project for offering a self-driven and creative educational experience that stands in stark contrast to our assembly line-style, testing and accountability-obsessed public school system. On the other hand, Liam Julian, over at Flypaper, criticizes the NYT piece for hastily generalizing that Independent Project-type reform is an across-the-board solution to serious problems in education today.
I really don’t know what to make of the Independent Project. I am highly sympathetic to unschooling and other forms of unstructured learning, but I try not to be dogmatic about it. So I’ve been thinking this stuff over for a few days, with the goal of being critical of the Independent Project where I would otherwise be tempted to praise it unreflectively.
Basically, I really can’t tell what the significance of the Project is, as it raises a variety of issues:
- Did the students perform well in large part because the stress of grading was lifted? (If you already have a strong pro- or anti-traditional grading position, then it’s hard not to view the Project in that light. See the work of Alfie Kohn for compelling arguments against grades).
- Was the Project successful because students don’t work well on inflexible time schedules? (More flexible school days can be arranged, without necessarily giving up on a structured curriculum).
- Was it the self-chosen curriculum itself that motivated the students? (A more student-centered curriculum can be implemented without necessarily giving up on traditional grades).
- Were students simply reacting positively to a display of faith in their autonomy and judgment? (This can perhaps be achieved by more respectful and democratic school environments, while retaining grades and/or some curriculum).
- According to what benchmark did the students’ learning improve? (If their previous teachers weren’t that great at their jobs, or were a bad match for the students, then that would provide a lower standard for the Project’s results to exceed than if each of the students had previously had a really excellent teacher).
The strongest reason not to understand the Independent Project as having wide-reaching implications for education reform is that its participants were self-selected (although one participant reports initial reluctance in the IDEA video about the Project, there is no indicator that any participant was coerced). Although the group was diverse, including both honors students and near-dropouts, that doesn’t mean that the students weren’t similar along the most relevant dimension: aptitude for self-driven learning. Contrary to what unschoolers tend to argue, this aptitude may not be universal, in which case we would not expect to see situations like the Independent Project working equally as well for all groups of students. In other words, the Independent Project, like so many concepts in education, may be a good and valuable practice that, sadly, cannot scale up.
Also, who caught this line in the NYT piece?:
“[The Independent Project participants] have all returned to the conventional curriculum and are doing well.”
Ah-ha. Perhaps students just periodically need a change of pace, an opportunity to express their individuality, or some of the kind of attention and praise that the Project offered them. Providing these things consistently to all students would require considerable education reform, but maybe not of the kind that the NYT gushingly recommends. And, in any case, more study is required to attempt to tease apart the various factors of the Project discussed above.