Students design their own high school

Students at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts created their own school for a semester. "What did it look like? No quizzes. No tests. No grades. Students created their own learning materials and taught themselves and each other."

If students designed their own school… it would look like this

(Via Seth's Blog)


  1. “taught themselves and each other” and that’s why we don’t let 15 year old’s design the curriculum. I am, by no means, saying that kids can’t have valuable insight into their own lives and what works best but this hippy dippy “let’s all teach each other” doesn’t work when you don’t know anything. Leave teaching to the people with the degrees and the experience. 

    1. What you are missing is that they do know something.  They know what they are passionate about, they know how to research, they know how a group works.  There are HUGE resources for gathering facts, and they are encouraging each other to go figure out how the facts fit into what they are curious about. 

      This has actually been around since the 60’s and has seen amazing results.  Teachers are not abandoned, they are yet another resource.  The quote at the end sums it up perfectly “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”.  This shows what corporate offices like Valve and Google already know, that when you let that innate curiosity be the driving force, you get significantly better results than grades, or raises or titles.

      And I say this as a teacher with the degrees and 7 years of experience.

      1. I call bullshit.  It’s one thing to have a collaborative project (and we can discuss how rare it is to have equal participation later), and quite another to suggest that anyone, kids or older, can learn better without a competent trained educator present.  Hell, if we could, I’d have saved thousands in music lessons alone.

        1. Did you read Mark’s post?

          “Teachers are not abandoned, they are yet another resource.”

          Which is as it should be.

        2.  Of course kids can learn better when there’s a competent, trained educator present. This school had those. No one is arguing that. It’s a strawman.

          But a competent, trained educator has far less of an impact on whether a kid will learn better than an effective educational environment does. I’ve known plenty of kids who’ve gone nowhere with music despite having a professional teacher, because that was it, that was all music was to them – a weekly session with a teacher, and some practice in between.

          But the kids who grow up surrounded by music, with musical peers who push them to excel? They are going to succeed, trained teacher or not. Because teachers are a resource that can make you better, but the best teacher in the world can’t make you learn.

          Maybe I’m biased, coming from Computer Science, where practically anyone of any skill learns the craft through a situation like the one described rather than formal education. Mentors are often far, far more useful than “teachers” – though both of them are highly skilled educators, I suppose mentors don’t really count as “trained” educators…

        3. It is an objective fact that some kids learn better without a competent trained educator present and some kids learn worse.

          The problem is that we treat all kids as if they all learn in the same ways.  This is just one experiment in making high school a better experience for some kids.

          1. Just give me a pile of books. My junior and senior years in high school were largely independent study with weekly meeting with advisers. And that was in the 70s.

          2. Uhh, no it isn’t. And just your saying it doesn’t make it so.  If a teacher is impeding your progress then he’s not doing it right.    Working my way up the thread: why shouldn’t mentors be considered educators?    That said, I got no argument with the fundamental concept that different kids learn different ways, and that collaborative study (with the teachers keeping herd) can work well for some.    The risk creeps in when there’s no clear way to evaluate people’s end-of-semester accomplishments.  Just as there are good collaborations and bad collaborations, there are good tests and bad tests.  If you can’t do derivatives, or translate Cicero (well, OK, nobody can do the orations :-) ), or harmonize without parallel fifths,  you didn’t get it right.  
            And while I’m at it,  hey BoingBoing: would you please get some other thread hoster?  This trick of one’s presubmittal post getting nuked while trying to log in is really pathetic.

          3. As a former teacher, I can assure you that there are kids who learn better without an educator around.  And there are lots of adults, like Antinous above, who will tell you that they preferred learning without adults around. Therefore, it is, as I said, an objective fact that some (not all, but some) kids learn better without an educator, no matter how trained or competent he or she is.

            Suggesting that zero kids do better without an educator is to pretend that all kids learn in the same way and we both know that’s not true.

            There is no way to avoid risk in any education scenario.  The only way to mitigate risk  is with constructive communication which respects the individual needs of the student.

      2. “This shows what corporate offices like Valve and Google already know, that when you let that innate curiosity be the driving force, you get significantly better results than grades, or raises or titles.”

        I was educated at home and I didn’t have much of a formalised curriculum. My mother did start out by buying teaching materials (a lot from Oxford University Press), but she quickly clocked on to the fact that if she just kept me asking questions and gave me access to places where I could find my answers, I would teach myself.

        I read a lot, I made friends with librarians and at the tender age of nine, four years before I was supposed to have one, they conspired to give me an adult library card. With that card, I had access to some of the best, most celebrated thinkers in history and the science fiction shelves.

        Curiosity’s all you need. If you can nurture that in a child, they’re sorted.

    2. I participated in a very competitive high school Academic Decathlon team back in the late 90s. The whole process revolved around mutual teaching. The competition authority only publishes a syllabus, and it’s up to the teams to do their own research and educate themselves about the subject matter – and the 10 events encompass the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences. Yes, it all culminates in a battery of multiple-choice tests (as well as essay, speech and interview events), but the nature of the event (whose curriculum changes every year) means that kids wind up figuring out how to make connections between different disciplines, applying material from one year to the next year, and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills — far more than in any regular class. This was an extracurricular activity and all of us said constantly that we wished school was like that all the time. Definitely seems like a better model for learning communities of the future, rather than a system designed in the late 1800s to warehouse kids and educate them in rote basic tasks in order to make them good factory workers.

      1.  Corporate leaders now want people in the developed world to do rote basic tasks as office, food, and retail workers.  Don’t get your hopes up unless you are willing to support a social revolution.

        1. Oh, but I am!

          I don’t doubt that you’re right – some corporate leaders want the education system to produce drones. Those businesspeople were behind the “back to basics” movement in education reform of the 90s and 2000s. At the time, I remember people defending humanities and arts classes in public school as necessary to an education system that produced “citizens for a democracy” rather than “workers for the service industry.”

          Your average shopping-mall retail chain has a small cadre of headquarters types – the marketers, product designers, sales and management types, who earn well; and then they employ a large staff of part-time low-wage workers in the stores. Those companies are happy to hire from the pool of high school grads we have today. Same with your typical chain restaurants. But I think it would make sense for other members of the business community to support a new education system that produced critical thinkers and creative problem solvers at a better rate. In particular, businesses that want to succeed in internationally competitive industries – manufacturing, design, logistics, and so on – would benefit.

          1. Most the employment in manufacturing consists of assemblers, packers, machine operators, technicians, cad/cam operators, data entry workers, etc.  These are blue collar jobs, not high level creative professional positions.  There are many traditional proletarian workers for every yuppie designer, manager, or engineer.

            Most of the employment in logistics consists of truck drivers, forklift operators, warehouse laborers, dispatchers, sorters, etc.  There are a handful of managers and a few skilled rail and airline jobs on the top, but far more low pay highly exploited workers on the bottom.

      2. I had a similar experience in Canada, but it was a heptathlon, not a decathlon.  My experience also earned me credit as it was an enrichment level class and required recommendations by several teachers to be enrolled.

        We were given a syllabus but were otherwise free for the semester — we could learn what we wanted, how we wanted, where we wanted, and when we wanted.  Similar to your experience, it culminated in a regional competition.  There was also a team component if my memory serves me. 

        It was glorious. Definitely my fondest memory of my high school education.

        I won several medals for my efforts.

    3. Why would we assume that kids teaching themselves things are going to end up worse than kids who leave it “to the people with the degrees and the experience?”  A lot of those kids don’t end up learning very much and absolutely hate the experience of high school.

      Why not experiment and see if there are kids for whom this approach works?

      Oh, and sometimes, this “hippy dippy” thing does work when you don’t know anything.

    4. These sorts of experiments with self-directed education models have been going on for many years – famously with schools like Summerhill in the UK, where the curriculum is decided by the students though not necessarily taught by them. Other “alternative” schools (not to be confused with schools for “at risk” youth) that borrow from that model exist all over the US, most having been founded in the 60’s and 70’s. These schools often produce students who are are independent and high-achieving, though they are not for everyone – the students who do best in those environments tend to be ones who are more curious, more engaged, and more motivated. Perhaps more kids would be curious, engaged and motivated though if they didn’t start in schools where the only kind of learning came from a person with “degrees and experience” teaching them to answer multiple-choice questions and take high-stakes tests every other week…

  2. “a system that is meant to teach and help the youth”.

    That’s pretty ignorant.  The purpose of forced schooling is to create obedient workers.

    I applaud anyone who manages to break out of such a system, but the naivety displayed by this student demonstrates the limits of his self-education.

    1.  Nordic social-democracy is a step up from raw American style neo-liberal capitalism, but we have to remember that it is still a compromise between the working class and the employing class.  A genuine free society would entirely eliminate the later.

      1. A genuine free society would entirely eliminate the later.

        A free society that prevents people from paying other people to provide services.  I don’t think “free” means what you think it means.

        1.  Paying for services is one thing.  Extracting surplus labor value from someone because your class has a monopoly on ownership of the means of mass production is another.  When I buy car repair services, I am just a consumer, not an employer.  When a capitalist hires someone for a wage, they are an employer.  There’s a big difference.

          1. Is there a difference?  

            All you have done is change the names.  Change your “Free Mechanic” to “Independent Contractor”, and “Consumer” to “Client” and we have the mechanism of your so called utopia. 

            If you have ever worked in IT or Design fields, you know that this is about as FAR from “free utopia” as it is possible to be.  

            Your “consumer” immediately fills the same role as your “filthy capitalist” – the one who has a task that needs doing, and an amount they are willing to pay, which may or may not be rational. 

            Those roles, and dangers are inherent in an economy based on inflationary debt, and quite possibly simply inherent in human nature.  All you have done is change the names.

  3. I’m trying to picture how the actual kids I went to high school would deal with a system like this.

    Maybe a third would engage in utopian self-directed learning.

    Another third would pursue getting stoned and laid.

    The rest would either be gone or spend their school time making everyone else miserable. You know, the future politicians and religious leaders.

    1. Precisely. It’s not that it can’t work in theory among highly motivated students (and yes, “independent study” classes for honor students are a traditional thing), but too much free form can lead to disasters, like the mostly failed “alternative universities” that were big in the 1960’s. 

      1.  fair enough — it’s true that Academic Decathlon is an opt-in extracurricular activity. however, the rules of the event require the school to field a team composed of students with mixed GPAs – 3 students with A averages, 3 students with B averages, and 3 students with C or below. It’s commonly observed that the “C” students benefit disproportionately from the Decathlon experience. Since graduating I’ve continued to volunteer as a tutor for my old school, and I’ve personally seen many kids who were dropout risks becoming highly motivated and going on to college. The learning and working styles of the “C” students are much different from the A and B students but to be honest they tend to be more open-minded and creative at solving problems. So my point is that collaborative and student-directed learning must have some potential.
        Do you have any examples of these failed “alternative” universities? I’m not familiar with this story.

        1. I’m talking about things along the lines of Goddard or Antioch (Antioch College, not the more normal university that broke off from it). In such schools, there tend not to be majors and grades tend not to be given. It’s a neat idea along the lines of Aristotle’s Lyceum, and they do have occasional successful graduates, I suppose.

    2.  Why can’t kids get stoned, laid, and engage in self-directed learning?

      As for those who make others miserable, they are a product of class society.

  4. There’s a certain class dynamic at work here. I can see this working very well for the type of students shown in the video (and the kind of student I was; during my last year in high school, I had one course than ran in a similar way, and it was fantastic). Students who come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds, with educated parents, access to technology and probably a home library, who speak the language of instruction fluently, and who have a substantial body of background knowledge obtained through both a traditional school system and after school lessons and parental support–these are the kinds of students who thrive in such an environment. Students who don’t have that background are just as likely to flounder, regardless of how driven, intelligent, or creative they are. In my at-risk school community, I see this dynamic every time I assign an independent study–certain kids will flourish (the ones who are already learning outside of school, and already doing just fine), and others practically demand more structure.

    This said, I think programs like this are a step in the right direction, and a far better educational model than the hyper-structured, standardized-test-based model that’s currently all the rage in North American schools. 

  5. This is not a particularly new concept, but it is a successful model. I graduated high school in 1984 and I went through a very similar program. At the beginning of the school year, we would all brainstorm ideas for classes. We would then put the abstracts on 3 x 5 cards on the wall, and people who were interested would sign up. When a particular idea reached critical mass, the individuals would get together and discuss the curriculum, materials and outside help to facilitate the course. The “teachers” who facilitated the program were co-learners in this process.

    When this program started, it was necessary to change state law to allow for these types of alternative programs. The first class organized around crafting a bill and getting sponsorship for it in the state legislature. 

    When this program began, it attracted the top 150 students in a very competitive school (New Trier High School in Illinois). Later in the programs life it attracted other types of kids, those who learned differently, the gay kids who found the traditional school oppressive, kids who were already professional musicians, kids who had really difficult family lives. 

    It was an amazing experiment, focusing on project based learning and original source materials. The lesson was on how to learn, not what to learn. I feel I am better prepared in life because of it. Much of it was similar to the montessori philosophy.

    I know the faculty who introduced the program are now writing a book about their experiences with the program, The Center For Self-Directed Learning, or “The Center” as we knew it.

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