The Independent Project

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow” – John Dewey

One of my last blog entries was “Why I Voted No on the Exploration Academy.”  For those of you who haven’t followed the happenings within our school district lately, a new charter school was proposed at the high school level that would allow students the opportunity to personalize their education and offer a curriculum to students we really haven’t ever seen in our district.  There was a part of me that was skeptical about how it would work and how quickly it could be implemented to not only give students the best experience possible, but also that our staff working with the program would feel supported.  I was also concerned about the budget impact and the future financial impact to the district.  At the heart of the budget concern was whether the at-risk students originally targeted by this program would have their supports cut as a result of shifting funding.  I was also worried about their access to this program.

Ultimately, I voted no on passing the charter.  I was the only no vote.  Even though I voted no, now that it is going to be a program in our district, I want it to be successful.  In an effort to educate myself on opportunities in personalized learning, I did what I normally do which is to research the issue.   I regularly read a lot of different blogs and scholarly articles.   However, it was an article on “LinkedIn” entitled “What I learned on Day 1 of TED…” that led me to the following link.  Sugata Mitra has done a lot of research on self-directed learning.  I would encourage you to read about his work and watch his numerous TED talks.  His work alone made me start to rethink a lot of what I believe about education.    But then, in the comments of the article about Dr. Mitra, I found a link to a YouTube video by Charles Tsai.  Mr. Tsai wrote: I recently visited a public high school in Massachusetts where students have created their own self-organized learning environment. You can tell their thinking is very much aligned with what Sugata Mitra describes. The revolution has begun.

Is it a revolution or is it the beginning of a new educational era?  Maybe it’s both? I am not sure what it was about that video, but something really spoke to me.  As a parent of a second grader who hates math and struggles in the traditional school setting at times, I instantly connected with the video, specifically with Sergey who says that as a dyslexic student, if it weren’t for “The Independent Project” that he would likely not have survived our education system.  That scares me.  What does that mean for my daughter?  Can we create a program that serves as a lifeline for her?  I love learning and so does she but there is definitely a difference at this point about what motivates her.  How do we create a system where students motivate themselves and stay engaged in the educational process?

My initial reaction to the video was a tear, and a feeling of “WOW”!  The video really grabbed me.  I wished I had had the educational opportunity that these young people were given. More importantly, it reframed for me how I as a teacher or counselor could help facilitate such an impactful experience.  The video gave me a small a-ha moment as it could relate to the Exploration Academy.   The reality is that our educational system is changing.  I just attended a two day conference talking about how higher education is changing.  I think it only makes sense that as our education system changes it changes at all levels.  The larger issue is whether or not there is buy-in to the changes that need to be made to allow our educational system to survive.  I would ask you to watch the linked videos.

Please review the white paper developed to detail how the Independent Project was conceived and then implemented.  Finally, I would ask you to start a dialogue with your family, your friends, your local educators, your school board, and anyone else who might listen.  I think we need to start talking about what is possible; much like Sam Levin did when he came up with the idea of the Independent Project.   The Independent Project continues to evolve each year which speaks to me volumes of the power of this concept.  As new students engage in the project they bring new ideas and passions to the table which allows the project to expand, grow, and evolve.

I do think education in its current form will change.  It has to.  Technology, funding, and societal demand will require it to change.  We can wait for the change to sweep us up or we can look to be the change makers.  I have linked you to videos about the Independent Project, and to its website.  There is also an Independent Project Facebook community out there.  I think our Exploration Academy can do this.  I think we have great resources within our district and a community that values progressive ideas.  I would love to see this concept tried with our Exploration Academy and see where it takes us.  In the meantime, since the Independent Project focuses more on High School age students, I will keep working on with others to find out how we can engage young learners and ensure we help them stay connected to learning throughout their educational process.

I welcome your thoughts and I hope that you always feel comfortable contacting me with your feedback.


About johnmmcculley

Father of three, currently serving in my first term on the Verona Area School Board. Hoping to help foster more open discussions about the future of education in my community.
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