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Kids, Curiosity, and Credentials—Part II (Alternatives)

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I ended my previous post by asking how we can truly engage all students. This isn’t a new question, nor is the obvious answer—find their interests, and nourish them—anything new. Ninety years ago Eugene Randolph Smith, founder of my school and a leading figure in the Progressive Education, harped on and on in his writing about “interest” being the central factor in student motivation and student success. He believed then that kids were capable of figuring out and then involving themselves meaningfully in things that mattered, and I believe it now.

In Smith’s time our school did not give conventional grades but conveyed the quality and depth of a student’s learning through narrative reports. Some schools today use a similar system, which seems to work on a small scale perhaps in part because it is so distinctive. The beauty in such a system is that it turns on each individual student’s story, a story (in schools) of the confluence of personal engagement and curricular opportunities and expectations.

But more broadly, it’s not the report cards (or lack thereof) that matter, it’s the program, those curricular opportunities and expectations, and the answer to the engagement question must lie there.

There are is at least one broad theme to any answer that is to work for kids, from the un-schooled to the credential-obsessed. This is to shift curricula—and assessments—toward topics and modes of work based on what matters to studentsworthy work on topics of authentic importanceand toward the kinds of collaborative, creative, critical-thinking-based project work that is precisely what the evangelists of 21st-century learning are calling for. It’s even essential to make communication—writing, reading, speaking, listening, representing, viewing—an important part of this work. Four of those 21st-century C’s, all knocked off in one approach to teaching and learning!

To do this well we may have to shift our thinking about credits and credentials. At its best, this work goes where few schools have dared to tread and asks questions whose answers remain obscure if there even are answers at all; certainly there is seldom one “right” one. It crosses disciplinary boundaries and can inspire students to the deepest and richest kinds of grappling with ideas, perspectives, institutions, and even their own values and dreams.

Here’s an example: Every fall and spring the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is overrun by middle and high school students following their own interests in a weekend festival of interests and curiosity. The Splash (November) and Spark (March) programs offer incredible smorgasbords of workshops and minicourses that appeal to every kind of interest—and for no credential other than the experience itself (although I suppose you could add participation to your activities list on an application). “A” students and un-schoolers alike gather to follow their bliss in hundreds of directions–check out last year’s menu.

A second example: Now in its second year, the amazing NuVu Studio program , a design-studio based program founded by folks from M.I.T., Harvard, and elsewhere who wanted to apply that methodology to learning across a range of problems and disciplines in as real-world-centered a way as possible. Twenty-some kids (a majority from our school, it must be said) at a time spend a term at NuVu working on open-ended, ill-defined problems of real social import and learning enormous amounts about things that haven’t quite so much mattered in their conventional school experiences—but which tend to “stick” and matter a great deal as they proceed back through their “regular” schooling. All students get from NuVu by way of credential is a narrative report, although sending schools may count the experience as elective credit. But the words of the narrative, like the addition of Splash to an activities list, can never express even of a fraction of the internal power of what the student experiences and learns.

Schools today need to liberate themselves from the tyranny of the credential culture and focus on ways to inspire students in a thousand new directions. This does not mean (necessarily) abandoning conventional classes and courses of study, but rather focusing not on piling up credits and test scores—which will in fact take care of themselves, if the new learning is well designed and well delivered—but on developing experiences that feed, and feed on, the energy of each student’s fully engaged intellect.

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