when young people are in charge, good things happen

Sam Levin

A few months ago, I stumbled on something called The Independent Project. In 2008, the idea for the project hatched. The Independent Project’s founder, 10th grader Sam Levin, created an experiment: to learn better, without teachers. Levin, his guidance counselor, Mike Powell, and a few students who craved something different created a school within a school. Eight students all together.

According to a recent MindShift article on the project, Levin “took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” Through discussion, they decided on the structure of the program (and wrote about it in The White Paper). On Mondays, an overarching question was agreed upon. This is what they would spend the week studying. For example: Why do we cry? After they spent the week exploring the topic together (and individually), the group used Fridays to share, critique, and assess.

John Holt

In a 2011 Spin Education interview, Sam Levin said that he started the Independent Project because “school was not meeting everyone’s needs.” For years, educators, thinkers, and policymakers have lamented over the education system’s inadequacies. In a 1983 interview with John Holt, Holt referred back to the 1946 complaints about progressive education and school not teaching the basics. We have been complaining forever.

The solution is engagement, and the method is simple: give education back to the student.

Some students find their schools stimulating and are able to “pull everything” from their teachers and their peers. But this is rare, and I think we all recognize this. Here’s Susan Engels on the failure of education system: “Our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.” (NY Times) For those of us circular folks who do not fit into the public education square hole, it is high time to venture into learning alternatives. When one thing doesn’t work, try another. 

To increase engagement, we need to allow students to learn for themselves. Think: don’t give someone a fish, teach them how to fish (they’ll eat forever). The Independent Project put the students in the driver’s seat of their own education, an arrangement which better facilitates the “pull everything” process  (see: Rule #2 below).

Nothing works for everyone. For some, public school is the best option. But for the millions of students that don’t mesh with traditional schooling, an offer like The Independent Project would be a life changing gift. When asked if The Independent Project was a good alternative for public education, Sam Levin said that it was. I totally agree.

The beauty of Levin’s project was that it was formed by the students and run by the students. With practically no teacher involvement, they managed to create a seemingly Utopian learning community. Unschooling camps, free schools, and democratic schools are formed by adults and generally run by adults. A student engineered experiment is a tricky model to reproduce because such a critical component are the students. The most adults can do to help create these programs is to discuss the idea with kids. Ask questions. What would a no-teacher school look like? What would you learn? How would you learn it?

I encourage everyone to approach a child in your life with this idea. Plant the thought in their head, water the thought, nurture the thought. Talk to them about self-directed learning and community (and revisit the idea periodically). Encourage them to self-direct on a small scale. Learn one skill for themselves, and see how that pans out — what went right, what went wrong. Show kids the benefits of controlling your own education (more fun, more focused, more flexible, etc.).

The Independent Project is a great innovation. Let’s see more students do that.

10 rules for living well




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