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From one classroom to the whole school
The experiment succeeded in getting the students much more engaged in the class and in improving their skills. But Nick wasn't satisfied, for he did not believe the students had fundamentally changed their attitude about school. When he visited other classes, he noticed the usual signs of disengagement: the dead eyes, the yawning, the staring out the window, the endless side conversations, and other distractions. And, if he were honest with himself, these symptoms were not entirely absent from his own classroom. Beyond its social aspects, school still didn't matter deeply to most of these young people. He needed to find a way to expand the notion of emotional relevance and increase the likelihood of a connection between the students' felt needs and the academic day. Nick had the quixotic notion that students could experience school as a place where they could pursue personally meaningful learning goals, but knew that he would have to win the hearts and minds of his colleagues to initiate more substantive changes.
He led the curriculum committee (the department chairs and other academic leaders) through an exercise. "Forget you are teachers," he said, "and remember yourselves as learners. Think back to the time you did your best learning, whether in or outside of school. And write down the conditions that you believe were most responsible for your success as a learner." As people read their lists, he wrote on the board the conditions that appeared more than once. Next, he had them look at the assumptions about learning that seem embedded in the practices and policies of their school. (Before you read these two lists (pdf), try the exercise yourself.) The contrast was sufficiently striking that the committee agreed to rethink the school, a process that resulted in the creation of a new experience for all ninth graders and that then expanded through the other three years of high school in different ways.
Essentially, an interdisciplinary (science, history, English, the arts) program focusing on skill development rather than a set, universally required body of "facts" allowed ninth-graders considerable latitude to pursue their interests. As Nick had done in his English class, the team of ninth-grade teachers worked to develop their students' specific skills—reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening, studying—even grading these skills instead of giving grades in English or history, and encouraged the students to apply them to issues significant to them. Ninth-grade students spent the final two months of the year deeply immersed in applying their skills to a project that they designed with faculty guidance.
The approach led nicely to a program that later enabled some of these students as seniors (or even, under some circumstances, as juniors) to build their entire curriculum around a central interest. The students applying to this program needed to meet only two criteria: a demonstrated passion in some area (top)
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and the ability to work independently. Students went through a rigorous application process (that included their parents). They presented to a faculty panel specific evidence of their deep interest and independence, and found a teacher to sponsor and help them design their curriculum.
For those admitted, any remaining graduation requirements and the traditional five-course load were waived (typically, these students had already met most or all of the basic requirements). Students built their program to support their central interest—usually a combination of one or two regular courses at the school, professional off-campus internships or apprenticeships, courses at nearby colleges, and independent studies. The range of interests pursued was impressive: genetics, architecture, astronomy, math, writing, music, visual art, teaching, environmental science, foreign languages, philosophy, and history.
The idea was simple. Interest motivates, and one thing leads to another—interests usually lead learners to discover they need skills or knowledge that are often cordoned off into separate departments. For example, one student developing her interest in music and song writing, created with an English teacher an independent study in writing personal essays because she believed this skill would improve her ability to write lyrics. These were not programs designed for "at-risk" students, though this population was not excluded. Colleges gladly accepted seniors whether they emerged from this program or from the more traditional one.
What did it take for Nick and his colleagues to improve learning in their classrooms and, ultimately, their school? An interest in considering new insights into learning offered by neuroscience, the imagination to wonder "what if," and the courage to give it a try. And a lot of really hard work. What they created was a solution that worked at that time in that school with those kids and those parents. Under different circumstances, the solution to the problem of creating conditions to increase the emotional relevance of school for students would look very different.