Project 10,000

A Model for Student Choice and Hands-On, Project-Based Learning
Alan Friesen Preamble The common school (now called a public school) was a brand new concept, created shortly after the Civil War. “Common” because it was for everyone, for the kids of the farmer, the kids of the potter, and the kids of the local shopkeeper. Horace Mann is generally regarded as the father of the institution, but he didn’t have to fight nearly as hard as you would imagine—because industrialists were on his side. The two biggest challenges of a newly industrial economy were finding enough compliant workers and finding enough eager customers. The common school solved both problems. Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour rule”: in order to become an expert in a given field, a person needed to practice for 10,000 hours. It’s from this idea that I’ve named my proposal for a public school pilot project, Project 10,000. Schools today are broken. We teach students to memorise facts when they could look them up in seconds on the internet. We teach students how to pass multiple-choice tests, a test that its inventor, Frederick J. Kelly, says is “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders.” We teach students exactly the same curricula and in exactly the same manner, even though all of our students are individuals with individual strengths, desires, and dreams. Worst of all, we teach students how to be passive, when our nation needs entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and self-disciplined go-getters more than ever before. I’m not the only person to make such claims. • Sir Ken Robinson, in his RSA talk entitled “Changing Education Paradigms”,1 talks about how our schools today are based on archaic ideas of how the mind works, how students learn best, and how students should be taught. • Seth Godin, in his manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?,2 gives a convincing argument that the purpose of public education was to create complacent consumers and interchangeable factory workers, and that as a result, school kills the dreams of students. • Kirsten Olson’s Wounded By School3 illustrates how our current school system damages our students’ love of learning: kindergarten students start off being thrilled to go to school,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/StopStealingDreamsSCREEN.pdf 3 Olson, Kirsten. Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009.
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but by grade five that desire to learn is lost, and by junior high it’s a struggle to even get students to attend school. • Likewise, Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve4 and other publications, argues that grading and judgement are destroying our students’ desire to learn. • In Instead of Education,5 John Holt argues that our schools have become irrelevant at best, and that schools should be turned into places where people can come to learn about specific subjects and topics instead of institutions where all students are taught everything, whether or not they care about a particular subject. • Schools such as Sudbury Valley and Summerhill School were built by people who wanted to avoid public education entirely, and longitudinal studies of both institutions have shown that students who attend such schools are not harmed by the lack of curricula, lack of structure, or lack of anything resembling a traditional schooling model. • Finally, Grace Llewellyn successfully argues in The Teenage Liberation Handbook6 that high school is simply not necessary and advises students to drop out and pursue their own education. For those students interested in pursuing a post-secondary career, it’s not even necessary to graduate from high school, even in Alberta – a student as young as sixteen could take classes at universities such as Athabasca and then transfer to a brick-and-mortar institution, or simply wait until she was a mature student to enrol, taking a few years off to explore the world and experience life. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on a literature review: the above sources, as well as those by John Taylor Gatto,7 John Dewey,8 A. S. Neill,9 and other literary pioneers over the past hundred years amply show that the way that we do school is completely out-ofstep with the rest of society. Think about your school (or your child’s school) for a moment: are they allowed to use cell phones in school? Are they allowed to wear hats? Are they allowed to pick what they want to study in their classes? Are they allowed to collaborate with each other on projects? Outside of art class, are they allowed to respond creatively in any of their classes? Have you ever told your child that she just needs to jump through a few more hoops, and soon enough she’ll be finished with school? In the business world, how long would a business survive if it clung to ideals and methodologies set in the 1950s? And yet, why do schools today still act as if we’re still living in the middle of the 20th century?
Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. 5 Holt, John. Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better. Boston: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1976. 6 Llewellyn, Grace. The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School & Get a Real Life & Education. Shaftesbury, England: Element Books Limited, 1997. 7 Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Vancouver: New Society Publishers, 2005. 8 Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi, 1938. 9 Neill, A.S. Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
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I have a lot of criticisms of the way that our public schools are run, but let me make it clear that my employer is more progressive than most: they make computing technology a priority, they allow teachers to experiment with iPads in their classrooms, and they are making a serious attempt to update the way that we do school. Yet, even that is not enough, so long as teachers are standing in the front of classes and teaching every single student in the same way, with the same closed-book tests, the same repetitive assignments, the same, the same, the same. There’s a better way. This proposal, what I call “Project 10,000”, explains a pilot project that we could implement in our schools tomorrow. It doesn’t require a lot of fancy technology. It doesn’t require any money – aside from a single teacher. It doesn’t require a lot of materials. All it needs is a group of students, parents, and educators willing to take a risk and try something radically different in the name of student-centered learning. The Project One teacher said, "It's ridiculous to think that kids can be trusted to learn on their own." From “The Independent Project” In September 2010, a group of students at Monument Mountain Regional High School came together in a small room in their high school to learn. There was no teacher; there was no formal plan; there were no textbooks, tests, or anything else traditionally associated with “school.” Instead, eight students worked independently and with each other to learn about group-chosen topics, and pursued one individual project over the course of a semester. Called “The Independent Project,” this experiment was called a runaway success by teachers, administrators, and the students themselves. Before the project began, one of the student-participants recounted a comment from a teacher at the school: “It’s ridiculous to think that kids can be trusted to learn on their own.” In the face of the success of this project, this comment seems absurd, but even if the project was a dismal failure, this comment is still the impetus for modern schooling: kids can’t learn anything by themselves, so they need to be taught by adults. Is this really true? Think about a child in your own life: can that child accomplish nothing without an adult? My eight-year-old son is a Minecraft aficionado. Minecraft is a video game in which players dig out dirt, mine ore, chop down trees, plant gardens, and build huge structures out of stone, wood, and metal ores. At dinner one day, the topic of glass came up: my oldest daughter asked us how glass was made. My son, without looking up from his meal, said, “Sand.” My wife and I looked at each other, and inquired further. “Sand. Sand is melted, which turns into glass.” Guess where he learned this fact from? In the game, he dug up sand, placed it in a container on his player’s person, went over to his house, placed the sand in a furnace, lit the furnace and sustained it with charcoal (that he had dug up himself), and watched as the sand fused into glass. On the other hand, if he had learned this fact in a traditional school, what would be the chance that he would have actually seen this process for himself? No, the fact would have been present in a textbook, or would have been told to him by a teacher.
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How boring! What I propose is a pilot project that combines the independent learning found in “The Independence Project” with project-based learning, or PBL. PBL assumes that everybody – not just students – can learn by tackling large, complex projects instead of being taught through tiny, digestible bits of knowledge in a classroom. The laws of physics could be learned by a person building a trebuchet; the structure of English could be learned by a person writing a novel; carpentry and AutoCAD design could be learned by a person designing and building a shed. But if somebody isn’t interested in building a trebuchet, the experience would be tortuous rather than exciting. Likewise for a person not interested in writing, or a person who can’t distinguish between a nail and a hammer. A cornerstone ideal of this project is that we learn best when we choose what we want to learn. Adults reading this, if I told you that you had to learn the Python programming language or I’d give you a bad mark on a report card, how would you feel about learning Python? This is what we do to our students every day in school: learn this or you’ll be punished by bad grades, regardless of whether or not what we’re learning is interesting to you. The pilot of Project 10,000 would take place over the course of one semester, from the beginning to the end of the school day, under the supervision of a teacher. The role of the teacher wouldn’t be to stand at the front of the class to lecture, but rather to encourage, to be a sounding-board, to help find resources, to facilitate meetings with professionals within and outside of the classroom building, and to provide accountability for the students participating in the project. I truly think that self-motivated students could learn on their own away from the panoptic gaze of an adult – The Independent Project has proven this – but because of the potential complexity of some of the projects that a student could undertake, I think that it would be wise for an adult “guide on the side” to be available for students who need help. Students wanting to participate in this project would need to submit an application explaining what they want to explore and how they envision using their time throughout the semester. This is an opportunity for a student who has always wanted to pursue an idea, but hasn’t had the time or energy to do so during the school year, to do so with the full blessing of her school. As a teacher, I know far too many students who aren’t able to participate in fun or exciting projects in their personal lives because they’re already doing too much: last year, an acting company came to my school to facilitate a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. How often do students get an opportunity to act alongside professional actors? Yet, two students – and fantastic actors in their own right – chose not to participate because they were concerned about their academics. “I can’t act because I need to focus on math this year,” one told me. An admirable statement, but it angers me to think that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed because the student perceived mathematics to be more important than the arts, especially when this student was planning on pursuing a career in theatre after secondary school! Once an application has been submitted, it would be reviewed by a body of teachers and administrators, and a final list of participating students would be chosen. The number
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of students would depend on the scope of their proposed projects, but I would imagine that the upper limit would be 15. Over the course of the semester, then, the students would do school. The teacher would meet with each student on a weekly-basis to offer help, to answer questions, to help find answers, and in general to act as a guide. A student not familiar with carpentry might take a few shop classes during the day, then go back to his classroom to tweak his plans for building a tiny house. Or, a student building a trebuchet might watch a series of Khan Academy lectures on physics in order to solve a problem with a prototype that she’s built. Another student might electronically submit a short story she’s written to a literary magazine, asking for feedback in her writing. Each day would look different, and each day a student would be in charge of her own learning. Right now, students at Monument Mountain Regional High School who are participating in the current iteration of The Independent Project are electronically documenting their progress on an interactive blog.10 The same would be true for Project 10,000: every week, students would spend a half-hour writing down what they’ve learned, what they need to work on next week, and any other thoughts or ideas about their learning on a blog accessible to the world. This not only promotes accountability for students, but also shares the exciting progress of these independent learners with stakeholders and the media. At the end of the semester, an open house would facilitate the sharing of the successful completion of these projects. Our hypothetical students would demonstrate their trebuchet and hit a target across the football field for an audience, give a tour of their completed 100 sq. ft. tiny home, read the first chapter of a novel written over the course of the semester. And then, next semester, students would be reintegrated into normal classes, but with the knowledge that they’re more than passive containers waiting to be filled with knowledge: these students have accomplished something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, and their school will be directly responsible for this success. Project Requirements In a nutshell, this is what will be required for this pilot project: • A group of self-motivated students willing to try something new and take charge of their own learning, • A teacher willing to encourage, guide, and supervise said students, • A space within a school for students to work on and store their projects, and • At least one computer with internet access for students to post weekly entries on a class blog.

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http://theindependentproject2012.blogspot.ca

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Project Ideas Bearing in mind that this is not a comprehensive list and is limited by my own brain, here are some potential projects that students may choose to tackle: • design and build a tiny (less than 100 sq. ft.) house.· • design and create a stained-glass window • create a better version of the Alberta provincial budget, then send a copy to the government. • design and sew your own line of clothing using only fabrics from a local thrift store. Sell the clothing at the open house. • design a variant of chess, program it using Python or C#, and then create a branching AI that can beat at least one human player once • map out the distribution network of a major package carrier in Canada (DHL, Fedex, etc.), then design a superior network. • reverse engineer and build a working cell phone. Demonstrate that it works. Bonus points for building the case out of Lego. • design, create, and learn how to play a violin using renewable materials • design and implement a working mesh network for your community, providing cheap and reliable internet access to everyone in the area • create a honed sword using traditional blacksmithing tools. • program a chatbot AI that can beat the Turing test, or use item analysis to pass a multiple choice test. • design, build, and test a modern (and more efficient) variant of a trebuchet. • design and build a water filter that costs less than $10 and uses indigenous materials, regardless of where it’s built around the world. • design a training regime for successfully completing the Barkley Marathon. Follow the regime, then complete the Barkley Marathon. Potential Issues There are some issues that need to be kept in mind for the successful completion of this pilot project: • Funding for a teacher would need to be allocated. This might come from the school division or from a provincial grant. • Individual student projects might also require materials: depending on the project and the student’s background, it might be possible stakeholders to share material costs. In addition, local sponsors from businesses and the community might be willing to sponsor specific students’ projects. • Because of how credits are allocated in Alberta, students might have to delay their graduation date. It might be possible for students to earn partial credits for their projects from various core classes or from special project credits, but it is a possibility that students might need to spend an extra semester in school in order to receive the required number of credits for an Alberta high school diploma.
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The Future When we let our kids dream, encourage them to contribute, and push them to do work that matters, we open doors for them that will lead to places that are difficult for us to imagine. When we turn school into more than just a finishing school for a factory job, we enable a new generation to achieve things that we were ill-prepared for. Our job is obvious: we need to get out of the way, shine a light, and empower a new generation to teach itself and to go further and faster than any generation ever has. Either our economy gets cleaner, faster, and more fair, or it dies. Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For? The name I’ve chosen for this proposal, “Project 10,000”, holds at its heart a vision of a future in which every student gets a chance to become an expert on a topic they’re passionate about. By the end of a high school career, I would want students to have participated in at least three or four independent, personalised, and deep learning experiences. I want them to have the opportunity to become entrepreneurs, architects of their own learning, and taskmasters of their own time. Entering university, they have a clear idea of topics that fascinate them – and topics that, after spending five months pursuing, they can no longer tolerate! Imagine a world in which our students are educated like this, and instead of receiving a smattering of education across several disciplines, they’ve gained focused instruction and have demonstrated creativity, self-discipline, and ingenuity. Students who graduate this year will be applying for jobs in 2016 that don’t exist today. In 2008, for example, the idea of cloud computing was vague and undefined, but now one of the fastestgrowing segments of the tech sector is “Cloud Administrator”. Our students need to learn how to teach themselves and how to be adaptable, for it is only with these attributes that they will find success in our world. But one step at a time. This model, designed to be implemented by any school willing to take a risk and explore the idea of a different kind of curriculum model, will demonstrate that students are most definitely capable of learning on their own, and that schools are capable of facilitating this kind of learner-centric education. Would you rather that the children in our schools sit passively, take notes, write multiple-choice tests, and complete the same assignments as everybody else, or would you rather see students becoming experts in a field of their choice? This proposal is not a dry abstract designed to get people thinking about education – but of course it should do that, too. My purpose in writing this proposal is to do it, to implement this pilot in a local school. If you’ve read this and you want to offer advice, support, or criticisms, please contact me at alan@thefriesen.com. Feel free to share it with anybody you know who is interested in the future of education and the fate of our students. I truly believe that this idea could work and could have a serious effect on the lives of students in our province. With your help and with the guidance of our school board, imagine what could be accomplished by our students!

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