Traditional Education: Failure or Success?

Traditional Education: Failure or Success?

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Is traditional education a failure or a success?  I asked myself this question after reading an article about a program called the Independent Project School designed by a student from Monument Mountain Regional High School, a public high school in Massachusetts. The article discusses a cutting edge approach to education: self-directed learning.  Curious, I looked at other articles written about the program since its premiere in 2011.
Sam Levin, the creator of the program, decided there had to be a better approach to learning and suggested a new curriculum.  He proposed that students choose the topic they’d like to learn, do research on their own, develop their own questions, seek feedback from their peers, and consult with an academic advisor (teachers) when needed.  What else is different about this program? No grades; you pass or fail.  Is this a better way to approach education?
Traditional schools focus on instructor led classes.  The subject, content, and questions are decided by and created by teachers.  Information students learn is more about memorization and standardized testing.  Is there something wrong with this approach?  
If you know anything about Calvin Christian High School, you may understand why this article piqued my interest and why I’m sharing about it now. Since our inception in 2004, Calvin Christian High School has been using the Independent Project method as part of its teaching and learning approach.
Slightly different from the Independent Project School, Calvin combines a traditional approach to education with Independent Projects- affectionately referred to as IP’s by students. Students are given blocks of time within their schedules to work on IP’s and are given guidance by their advisors.  IP’s are a collaborative approach between teachers, students, and peers.
We also harness some of that same energy with our IBU projects every year in January.  Students design the lesson plan, do the research, plan the trips, and lead what happens.  The final product is a beautiful combination of collaboration, community, and learning from students and teachers alike.
Why is this important? Ownership is a huge component to learning and growth.  As Susan Engel wrote in her article about the program Let Kids Rule the School,

“The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented. They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them and when they learn together. In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.”

It just makes sense to utilize the capacity for passion and enthusiasm high school students already have.  How many times have you been amazed as your student rattles off all the lines from their favorite movies but cannot seem to remember to clean their rooms or take the garbage out?  I know my mom was always perplexed by this conundrum.  Well Mom, the simple answer: I was much more interested in the movies than cleaning my room and students are usually much more interested in the topics they choose than the information put forth to them from instructors.
IPs are also a springboard for success.  We’ve received countless stories from graduates who tell us that they feel more capable than their college counterparts in managing their time and learning.  CCHS graduates also feel better able to design and manage large projects, communicate through writing and speaking, collaborate and think Christianly about the information they encounter. Independent Project learning emphasizes these skills and our graduates capabilities post-high school are a direct result of those learning experiences.
So is traditional education a success or failure? I would say that our current system is failing students, not because traditional education is wrong, but because it isn’t enough on its own. I’m excited to see schools like Calvin and Monument Mountain that are exploring proven, alternative approaches to education.  About a quarter of the United States students will not complete high school on time or will drop out; that number is staggering and abominable. Students should not only be graduating, and graduating on time, but moving on with a passion for learning. Let’s put the cool back in School. 
~ Emily Zlab

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