“Everybody truly wants to learn”

I saw this video on “The Independent Project” thanks to a shout out from my old principal Mr. A. Within minutes of checking out the premise of the project, their website and this video, I was fascinated and frankly, hooked.

I think the idea behind a self motivated school situated inside a public school (a form that lends itself to more open learning if utilized to its full extent) is brilliant. That a bunch of interested students took focused time to work on a project that really interested them and had a concrete result upholds practically everything I’ve read on “modern education” thus far. Being affirmed in this project are various bits of Daniel Pink’s theories on the wonders of self-motivation, Cal Newport’s arguments promoting focused, concentrated effort and “the big project”, as well the general perceptions that school should fit the individual, and that a “good” school is one that helps further one’s development and instills values, information and ideas that stick and are relevant outside the classroom walls.

I think nowadays, school has come to take on a whole new slew of connotations. But at its core, school is place of learning. That’s it. The barebones definition of school should not require add-ons such as- helps you get into college, helps test-taking skills, a place that makes the district and teachers look good, workforce birther etc. Sure school can do that and help us in more ways than JUST learning, but the learning should come first- not standardized tests, not college, not jobs. Learning to learn, to have knowledge, to be aware to do things that require more than the rudiemntary skill fo filling in the bubble that matches with the memorized answer.

So it shouldn’t matter so much how that learning is achieved. In the video, one of the girls mentions how school “doesn’t help anyone because you’re trying to put people in boxes and humans just don’t fit in boxes.” We are all unique which means that, for better or worse, as a whole, we learn differently. Sure some people learn like others, but without any sort of delineation, teaching the same thing to the masses, regardless of their aptitude, their mindset, their interest or their learning style, is ridiculous and probably “unproductive.”

In the video, one of the group’s advisors mentions how in our society, students are simply passed along from class to class often with little to no enthusiasm or interest. These students sit on a conveyor belt powered by society and its requirements, which moves them glacially from one predestined location to another. By contrast, the students involved in the Independent Project, some of whom weren’t considered “great students” (grades wise) to begin with, are moving themselves. Just by being off the conveyor belt, the self-motivated environment overtime fuels a thirst for knowledge. As one student put it, they started “finding questions in everything” and wanting to learn about anything they stumbled across that they didn’t know.

That’s what makes this project so fantastic, in my opinion.

The students in the video also said some great things about why The Independent Project works and why it is even better, in some ways, than normal school.

  • As one girl said, “knowledge isn’t memorization, it’s more an exploration of facts.” As a result, the rote memorization required in most classes promotes less absorption of knowledge. If the same concepts were explored through a series of well crafted questions, designed to probe different aspects of the idea or problem, and the students found the answers on their own and then shared their findings so everyone got the big picture, the knowledge would be much more concrete. Research shows that being able to effectively teach a concept and answer most questions about said concept, shows a certain level of mastery. As a result of the Independent project, knowledge and information is more personal and you begin to make connections across the board which helps information stick without the help of the usual assessments. One student remarked that “I don’t need tests or quizzes to show I know something. I know that I know it and that I can express myself through it.” That sounds good enough to me…
  • While attending “normal school” prioritization is key. Sadly, if you’re not involved in an organized extra-curricular in your area of interest, other projects that you often have greater interest in are sidelined for school work. As the student who made a film said, “I can either push aside my creativity to struggle on something I simply don’t care about or I go with my creativity and do awful in school.” The beauty of the Independent Project is that it combines the project work with “academic work,” by splitting the day into chunks of time dedicated to those two things.
  • The guy who was effectually the creator of the project said that “it works because students end up doing so many creative things.” The advisor of the project also commented on how having the freedom to learn whatever you want (within the subject of the week) lends “a sense of agency, and that changes the way you act.” I think it’s important that she noted how the freedom influenced their actions, because I feel like some people would discount this project on the belief that nothing productive would emerge and that students would simply goof off. However this teachers statement proves that when given an opportunity to follow their interests “for credit” students will do just that.
  • Finally, another student echoed an idea I’ve supported for a while which shows why the students involved with the independent project thrived. He said that “you can’t achieve the broader goals you want and you don’t have the motivation get good at things unless you make school a place where people wanna be.” Because the students who participated in the independent project WANTED to be there, they accomplished great things.

Other people, more qualified and educated than little old me, also agree with the statements I have proposed above and the fundamental ideas behind the “Independent Project”. For example, this project exemplifies the school that the names I mentioned above preach about. In fact, this is not a passing fad. Some schools even make this sort of thing a potential course offering called the Independent Study. Independent studies, which at my school are offered to seniors, are one semester long (approximately) and usually require approval from a higher power as well as some sort of result at the end of the period but as for the topic, well, the sky is the limit.

There was one quote I heard that I felt really summed up the power of this project. When asked what they learned, a couple of students said something along the lines of “We realized that, everyone has interest in things and everybody truly wants to learn. We learned how to teach, we learned how to learn and we learned how to work. We learned how to ask questions and explore the answers in different methods. we learned to take what we learned and share with the others because it was our responsibility to make sure everyone in the group also learned from our work.”

To teach, to learn, to share, to explore, to listen, and to create- any school has the potential for their students to do this.


State of the Union Recap

In the State of the Union 2013, Obama started out with a summary of all the improvements and progress that has been made in the past year. The highlights included our troops coming home, over 6 million new jobs, and our country having bought least amount of foreign oil in 20 yrs. He said that we have “cleared away the rubble of crisis and that the state of our union, is strong.”

However, there are still problems. Wages and incomes for the “under-appreciated” have barely budged. Our task is to rejuvenate, starting with the middle class, and restore the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities you can get ahead. He called Congress to remember that they are working for the many not the few and to encourage free enterprise. We should be opening the doors of opportunity to EVERY CHILD across this great nation. To achieve this, Obama said we must have bipartisanship and cooperation.

The first problem he addressed was the financial crisis and tax reform.  So far, we have reduced our deficit by 2.5 trillion dollars out of our goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction. How exactly are we supposed to reduce the rest of our deficit? Some people have proposed saving only defense cuts, while making bigger cuts to education, job training, social security benefits and Medicare. But Obama maintains that we “can’t just cut our way to prosperity.” Instead, we need a balanced approach- both cuts and revenue. In that vein, he applauded the affordable car act. Then, he called Congress to reduce taxpayer subsidies, ask more from the wealthiest and change the way the government pays for Medicare to become based on quality of treatment instead of number/kinds of tests. He said he is open to more reforms as long as they don’t violate promises that either he or Congress have already made.

“Now,” said Obama, “is our best chance for bipartisan comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.” Not working together to replace these drastic cuts will hurt our job market and economy even further.

The 2nd problem facing our nation is the job market- it’s improving but still has a ways to go. Obama called Congress to pass the rest of his Jobs plan and in addition new measures that are, according to him, fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget both parties agreed to a few months ago. He maintains that these additional measures will not increase the deficit and that we need, “not a bigger government but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad base growth.” Our first priority in achieving this while creating more job opportunities is to make the US a “magnet for new jobs” especially in manufacturing. To this end, Ford, Caterpillar and Apple have all agreed to move some of their manufacturing back to the US, as an example to others in this push to build and make more products in US. Another idea Obama has to additionally bolster our manufacturing is to create more government inspired manufacturing hubs, like one they made last year.  Obama also stressed the need for our country to invest in the best ideas.

From innovative new ideas, Obama transitioned to the 3rd big problem for us to tackle- climate change. On the bright side, we are getting more of our oil at home versus overseas, our nation-wide carbon emissions have fallen and we are producing more natural gas than ever before. However for the sake of future generations, Obama says we need to do more. Although, “no single event makes a trend” the fact that the 12 hottest years ever have come in these past 15 and that we’ve suddenly had an upswing in natural disasters (droughts, Sandy, Nemo etc.) are no coincidence. He echoed a statement we’ve all heard before- we must act before it’s too late. Obama believes that progress in the scientific sector can also drive economic growth. He cited Senator John McCain’s previously proposed plan as an option but was firm on the fact that “with or without congress, legislation to reduce pollution, prepare the people for the potential consequences of climate changes and speed the transition to other forms of energy” will get passed. One such legislation he proposed was using some of our oil and gas revenues to form an energy security trust that will drive new research and technology to get cars off oil for good. According to Obama, our energy goal is to cut in half the energy wasted by homes and business over the next year, through legislation as well as the construction of more energy efficient buildings.

The 4th major problem Obama mentioned was crumbling infrastructure. He said that we must put people to work making the most urgent repairs, specifically on the nearly 70 thousand structurally unsafe bridges; a venture that should have joint private and public funding. We also need to address the housing market problems by getting the majority of homeowners to refinance at today’s rates, which will save tons of money. “Let’s prove there’s no better place to do business than in the United States of America and let’s start here, “ said Obama.

Tackling the energy market and solving our infrastructure problems will also help create new jobs. But just jobs are not enough. Citizens need to be equipped with the necessary skills and training to fill these jobs. This “training” must start AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, because according to Obama, the sooner a child begins learning, the better their chances of success later on in life. The 5th thing Obama addressed was early childhood education. For kids who need the most help, the ones who end up deserving help the most, don’t end up being able to get the education they need to better their life. This lack of schooling can change the course of the rest of their lives. Obama wants to ““make high quality preschool available to every child in America.” This would boost graduation rates, reduce High School pregnancy and maybe even reduce violence rates. Good preschool is a good foundation for success in society. Every American student needs opportunities like one such collaboration between New York public schools, IBM and the NY state gov. Obama also proposed a new educational challenge, to better equip graduates for a high tech economy which will reward partnerships with colleges and employers, and a greater focus on technology, science and math. However, even with better high schools, most students still need higher education. Obama wants to change the higher ed act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive federal aid. “It’s a simple fact,” said Obama. “The more education you get, the more likely you are to have a good job and work your way into the middle class.”

The 6th issue he touched upon was immigration. Obama said that the US should remain open to everyone because we are better when we “harness the talents and ingenuity of striving hopeful immigrants.” To that end, it is time to pass comprehensive immigration reform including, but not limited to, stronger border security.

Next he discussed the necessity of women achieving freedom from discrimination and fear of domestic violence. To make that come true, he asked the house to reflect on Joe Biden’s proposal that touched upon similar issues and come up with their own proposal. Obama also said that women should earn a living equal to their efforts and therefore, we must pass the paycheck fairness act. To this he tagged along a push for raising the federal minimum wage to 9 dollars an hour saying that we must “reward an honest day’s work with honest days wages”. We must tie minimum wage to the cost of living so it finally becomes a wage you can live on. Building upon that, Obama stressed the need for equal ladders of opportunity in the middle class. As a way of leveling the playing field, the government wants to partner with 20 of the hardest hit towns to help them strengthen and improve.

The 9th issue he addressed was the war in Afghanistan. Because of how great our troops are, Obama said he could say with confidence that we will achieve mission of defeating core of Al Qaeda. Specifically, another 34,000 troops will come home and by the end of next year, the war in Afghanistan should be over. Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to Afghanistan will endure but the nature of the relationship will change- switch to focus on training of forces and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to track down the remaining shadows of Al Qaeda.

Next, piggy backing off of counter-terrorism, Obama renewed his commitment to limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. He said that all countries must follow international obligations. He called out North Korea and Iran, saying that Iran specifically needs a diplomatic solution to its arms “problem.” If either country refuses to act as they should according to international code, the United States will do whatever it takes to prevent them from misusing powerful weapons. Additionally, he promised that the US and Russia will work together to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals as well.

Obama’s commitment to our nation’s security expands to include cyber attacks. Hackers are no longer just stealing identities but have upped the ante to greater security threats. Obama has signed an order that will increase our security standards and believes that Congress should pass legislation to secure networks and detour attacks.

Aside from threats, the world presents new positive opportunities:

–       Trans-atlantic trade partnership with EU

–       Progress in most impoverished parts; goal is to eradicate poverty and AIDS

–       America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom (saw the power of hope in Burma)

–       Strengthening of alliances, continuing to stable transitions to democracy (especially in the Middle East)

–       Will keep pressure on the Syrian regime, and stand with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace

–       Equal treatment for all service members, gay and straight

–       Women are ready for combat

Obama ended with something I thought was a little out of sync with the rest of his speech but spoke to a campaign promise he had made, saying we all deserve the right to vote and to deny this to someone based on where they live, what their party affiliation is or because they can’t wait for insane amounts of time in line, is “betraying our ideals.” To fix this, he announced a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.

Then things got emotional. “Everything I’ve said tonight means little,” said Obama, “if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource, our children.” To close his speech, Obama once again brought up the controversy-fraught topic of gun control. American’s have come together around “common sense reform”, including background checks designed to make it harder for the bad guys to get their hands on guns. Police chiefs are working on getting the “heavy-duty” guns and ammunition magazines off the streets.

In my opinion, Obama’s main points during this SOTU were bipartisanship, fiscal solutions, early childhood education, jobs, climate change, security and gun control. Of course, no law will ever perfectly solve all the challenges. “However, we weren’t sent here to be perfect, said Obama “but instead, to make what difference we can.  We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans, just as they look out for us every day.” Obama continued in what I felt was a call to action, saying, “We are citizens. That is a word that describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and future generations. Our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.” It’s our turn now, as citizens, to write the next page in our country’s history.

Change is good

How proud am I of my school? Very. This week, they unveiled a new class schedule in line with the school’s newly constructed Learning for Life vision statement. In creating this schedule, the committee (of which I was a part) focused on five things: integrated studies, the ability to connect our learnings to a larger world and the world around us, project based learning and problem learning, serving and learning together, and reducing stress and increasing balance in student lives.

In my opinion, the new schedule is great. Seven periods rotate over seven days with a given 3 free periods a week (thanks to double science). Each class meets three times a week instead of the current four. Classes start later for everybody and if you have a free first period, you don’t have to come to school. Tests (and major assessments) can only be given during the first two periods of the day. Each class has a 90 minute extended period (which includes lunch) in which the goal is to get off campus and explore the subject in the real world. Office hours is now everyday once more, in both the mornings and afternoons somedays. Homeroom is only on either Monday or Tuesday and Friday. Assemblies are now on Thursday instead of Friday.

The response is mixed, as it often is. Lots of students are worried that in the 90 minute block, teachers will still lecture straight through and they can’t imagine having to bear that. Also, science teachers don’t think that 90 minute block once a week and one more double is enough to make up for the current double system. Students are complaining that memorizing the new schedule will be too hard. They also worry that teachers may pass of quizzes and tests as minor assessments an assign them in periods other than the first two. However the reception is not all negative. Everyone likes the new flexibility and can’t wait for the Jan term. In fact, they want it now!

As with any change, only time will tell its effectiveness. For now, I envision great things.