Let The Students Teach

Last night I read An Unschooling Manifesto by Dave Pollard. It's a very inspiration post and well worth reading. I don't know enough about the unschooling movement to know if I should get behind it or not. But so much of what Dave says rings true to me. I particularly like this part:

Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to
pilot a program called "independent study", that allowed any student
maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that
was an achievement in those days, when a C — 60% — really was the
average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their
grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of 'brainy'
students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring
group (the 'keeners') who did nothing but study to maintain high grades
(usually at their parents' behest); but the other half were creative,
curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The
chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school
walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my
energies into self-study.

To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at
this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost
90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I'd
become friends with some members of the 'clique' I had aspired to join,
and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in
less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss
philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third
world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of
science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We
went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together
(and critiqued each others' work).

As the year progressed, the 'keeners', to my amazement, found they were
struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular
structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a
remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks — on tests we didn't
attend classes for or study for — were so high that some wondered
aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low
90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare —
especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a
few months of 'independent' study. The fact is that my peers had done
what no English teacher had been able to do — inspire me to read and
write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My
writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in
the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read
aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class
that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates. 

The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a
province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students
were without having to consider differences between schools. Our
independent study group, a handful of students from just one high
school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year.
I received the award for the highest combined score in English and
Mathematics in the province — an almost unheard-of 94%.

Russell Ackoff, who I took a class from at Wharton twenty plus years ago, says in his book, Turning Learning RIght Side Up, that he has learned more from teaching than anything else. Of course that makes sense. I learn way more blogging, giving talks, and teaching than I do listening to others. When you are required to explain something to others, you have to figure it out yourself first.

I love the idea of turning students into teachers and I would do that going all the way down to elementary school. But in high school and college, it ought to be a primary way we educate students.

I am going to dig deeper into the unschooling movement and look at other models, like the Montessori schools, to figure out who is doing this well and why. It's a bit late for my own kids, who have largely been educated in the traditional school system (albeit a progressive one).

But if we are going to fund people who are hacking education, I think its best to figure out what is working and what is not. Then we know what to hack and why.

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