what is the significance of the Independent Project?

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.


  • I like that you question the metrics, Pam, but I’d also offer a colored Hansonian/McCabaian. Both introspection and primate studies suggest that partially developed minds revel in unanticipated liberty. Capuchin monkeys’ trade event variance rises when key restrictions are lifted in the lab, and snot-nosed brats flail undergarments when the cudgel of authority is relaxed (golly, let’s cite Maslow here, I guess)

    We’ve got an ordered evolutionary cum behavioral reaction here. I tend to subscribe to the Socratic notion that there is an ideal mode of child rearing, but I flatter myself enough that I suppose I can recognize that the path to perfection is strewn with the rubble of failed expectations.

    I reckon what I’m circumlocuting about is the suggestion that kids will leverage their situation the same as lab monkeys (perhaps not as cannily, though, as they lack the practice) to their advantage.

  • […] or does its success depend on the school, the kids, the situation? Pamela Stubbart raises some good questions about the project and it’s significance over at her “This Field is Required” […]

  • Could just be an example of the Hawthorne effect. They might be getting an improvement just by virtue of the fact that SOMETHING is being done differently, independent of what is being done.

  • Yep, thanks Matt, Hawthorne effect is definitely a possibility. Also, could have something to do with wanting for the Project to go well because people thought it wouldn’t, apart from anything special about the form it took, per se. Yet another reason not to think the findings will generalize/scale up in the way supporters hope.

  • Two further thoughts:

    1) This sort of thing really makes me worry about education research in general (and social science that is aimed at improving outcomes as well). There are serious philosophy of science issues here that aren’t getting enough attention.

    2) On the other hand, there are reasons to encourage teachers to make these kinds of innovations, for the same reason that doctors might prescribe sugar pills to a patient: improved outcomes are improved outcomes, after all.

  • J Petty wrote:

    I believe that this kind of learning can benefit for some students, just like textbooks and tests benefit other students. The problem we are facing today is the standardized, rigid system of schooling where teachers have to follow certain guidelines and have no room to maneuver off topic because they may not meet their benchmarks. Benchmarks and accountability can be a good thing (please don’t think that I am only one sided), but I think that it stresses teachers out, wears students out, and stifles creativity for all.

    I believe the best option is to allow students to explore options and find the best way they learn. The point of teaching shouldn’t be just about what we teach, but also how students apply their learning and increase their retention.

  • […] recently watched the video of the  Independent Project and caught some of the commentary like this and this from the NYT […]

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