The majority of the most advanced and successful implementations of student-directed learning are in independent schools or networks of schools started from scratch. These were started by visionary leaders who noted that we need to engage kids in authentic learning that interests them and nurture them to be independent problem solvers. These leaders had no qualms leaving behind traditional education and creating new learning environments based on experience and the latest brain research.
Some of the best models are part of the Deeper Learning Network set up by the Hewlett Foundation (see under resources). Four are highlighted here, followed by other similar examples. Note that the implementations at the different schools vary in substantial ways. Nevertheless, all have in common a more student-directed and authentic form of learning, often project-based.
The videos below attempt to capture the learning approach at each of the respective schools. However, it is really difficult to fully grasp the excitement and engagement of the students without an actual visit. Educators who visit these schools won’t believe how motivated and serious the students are and how they truly take ownership for their own learning.
High Tech High
High Tech High is a group of charter schools in San Diego. They were started by a group of business leaders who recognized they needed a very different kind of employee, and they recruited then shop teacher Larry Rosenstock to create a whole school based on the hands-on learning model he had used in his carpentry classes. Learning is entirely project-based, and interdisciplinary (no traditional subjects) through the 9th grade. The spirit of High Tech High is captured much more effectively in a special documentary film called “Most Likely to Succeed” that is featured elsewhere on this website.
For more information, see www.hightechhigh.org.
Manor New Tech High School (New Tech Network)
Manor New Tech High School is a special district high school, part of Manor Independent School District just outside of Austin. Manor is part of the New Tech Network, and it is one of the few pioneering schools that is a regular public school (although still started from scratch to find a better way to teach). Manor retains a more traditional schedule of subject classes. However, all work is project-based, and teachers frequently collaborate across subjects for different projects.
For more information, see mnths.manorisd.net.
MET School (Big Picture Learning)
The MET School is a learning model developed by Big Picture Learning that is built around internships for all students supplemented by academics tied to their internships. This model also originated the idea of advisory, where a small group of students meet regularly with an advisor for their whole high school career to address life issues. The Big Picture Learning organization actually supports more than 100 schools with different learning approaches but also based on core principles of authentic, hands-on, student-centered learning.
Envision Education operates a small network of charter schools in California. EnVision retains much of the traditional subject-type instruction. However, students do more open-ended projects to then apply what they have learned. EnVision also requires all students to prepare and present a defense of what they have learned through their high school experience, akin to a thesis presentation, to demonstrate they are ready to graduate.
For more about EnVision Education, see www.envisionschools.org.
Purdue Polytechnic High
Purdue Polytechnic High is an experimental school associated with Purdue University based in downtown Indianapolis. It uses a design model to help each student identify his or her interests and then pursue a learning path largely directed by the student.
Deeper Learning Network Videos
Note that the Teaching Channel, under sponsorship of the Hewlett Foundation, has produced a fairly extensive set of videos highlighting the features of each of the schools in the Deeper Learning Network. Here is their overview of the commonalities and distinctive features of each.
See the entire series at www.teachingchannel.org/deeper-learning-video-series.
Genesee Community Charter School Rochester, NY
Sixth graders at this Expeditionary Learning school in Rochester, NY worked on a project to revitalize their city. Their work was a major factor in driving the city to pursue the kinds of changes they recommended. Students in this video come back to talk about that experience and how it shaped their lives.
Charles R. Drew Charter School
At Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, elementary students learn complex engineering skills and concepts, helping to build lifelong critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
For more information, see the Edutopia case study here.
Thrive Public Schools San Diego
At Thrive Public Schools in San Diego, California — a school network with a strong focus on high quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) — projects are a necessary part of reaching the diverse population served by the school. About half of Thrive’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch; as many as one in four are identified as ‘exceptional learners’; and nearly 30% of students speak a language other than English at home.