Located next to a garbage dump in Mexico, a school with spotty internet access and intermittent electricity somehow produced the highest-scoring math student in the country two years ago. She was 12.
Meanwhile, a world away in Great Barrington, Mass., a dyslexic high school junior taught himself to play piano in just a few months.
Utterly different in their student populations, these two schools nevertheless share a belief in student-led education, a philosophy that’s gaining traction worldwide and, for some kids, making a huge difference.
Recently profiled in Wired magazine, student-led education boils down to this deceptively simple concept: Young people want to learn. They don’t need to be forced. So give them the tools to teach themselves, and watch their discoveries take flight.
In Mexico, fifth grade teacher Sergio Juárez Correa tested this by putting a math equation on the board. In a matter of hours his students had devised their own formulas for solving it correctly — without any adult coaching. State exams, Correa now believes, actually limit education.
“They test what you know, not what you can do,” the teacher said. “I am more interested in what my students can do.”
An interesting proposition, but teachers considering a similar approach at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts wondered how student-created projects would be judged: What would be rigorous enough to earn a diploma? Who would decide?
Principal Marianne Young understood their questions but backed the program on a per-semester basis anyway. After a year, one of her students had taught himself how to build a model airplane and master flying lessons; another had written a full-length manuscript. Others had conducted environmental research, made films and deconstructed the physics of skateboarding.
“The power of a young mind is pretty impressive,” says Mike Powell, a guidance counselor at Monument Mountain who supports the Independent Project program. “One, they’re so resilient. Two, they’re extremely creative. Three: They’re fearless, they’ll try anything.”
As described in this short film by Charles Tsai, the program builds on an intriguing question: If kids designed their own schools, what would they discover?