DIY Schools

DIY Schools

The DIY trend has not been lost on the Y generation. There’s DIY this and DIY that, with craft stores, big-box hardware stores, and online sites all taking advantage of the craze. But what if we took it a step further and instituted DIY Schools?

Schools today are driven by Standards of Learning and Common Core with little to no deviation. Students are unmotivated, uninterested, and discouraged with school today. They feel disconnected from content and are displeased, to say the least, with the constant testing they endure. Educators, of course, feel their pain. They are often expected to teach to the test leaving little room for deeper exploration of topics and creative projects that show a greater understanding and application of skills.

So what would happen if we let our students design the curriculum that they wanted to explore? Recently, I have been reading a lot about student designed education and the powerful effect it is having on students’ motivation and desire to learn.

Sam Levin, a former student at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts noted that while he and his fellow students were learning they were missing both engagement and mastery. They were unhappy; Sam decided it was time for a change. He wanted to develop expertise in a concentrated area and learn how to learn.

Thankfully for Sam his school’s administration took a chance on him and his idea and instituted a semester-long pilot called “The Independent Project”. Students were chosen based on an application and interview process. A diverse group of eight students participated in the pilot. Daily group meetings were the only non-negotiable part of their day. Otherwise, the students were on their own to self-motivate and direct their learning. They chose what books to read, topics to explore, and the medium to present their final project at the semester’s end. An advisor and three pre-determined faculty members were accessible for a period of time each day for any content area clarification. In the end, their evaluation was more formative and resulted in a pass/fail rather than a letter grade.

While with any pilot program there are challenges, peer constructive criticism, getting faculty buy-in, and student interest, were particular to this one; overall, the positive outcomes outweighed all of them. Students were excited and talking about what they were learning outside of school; they asked deeper, more thought- provoking questions about what they were learning during and after the pilot and began taking ownership of their education.

Another school near San Diego, California is also trying their hand at a similar approach, but taking it a step further and designing their entire school, Design 39 Campus, in this way. With a changing student population, school leaders are taking advantage of the opportunity and opening a school “showcasing innovative thinking and practice”. A group of progressive and proactive school leaders presented their idea to the community first, citing that once the parents understood what was being proposed, “They just took off with it”. The students voiced their opinions, as well, saying they wanted “meaningful, purposeful work. They didn’t want to be limited”.

Design 39 Campus is unique in both design and curriculum; the students are grouped in age pods (and then further into interest or ability pods) and explore in both a “makery” and “collaboratory” rather than a traditional classroom space. Each day teachers are provided with an hour long collaboration time before the students arrive. Upon arrival each day students still engage in homeroom time with its main goal being relationship building. After their initial check-in they are split into their pods for “integrated learning time” and later “deep dive time”. “The ideas are coming from the students and we form the course around the students”, said Megan Power, one of Design 39 Campus’ teachers.

Clearly, both students and teachers are valued and empowered at Design 39 campus. There is a “uniquely flat leadership model” that allows for deeper exploration and self-directed learning to take place. Students are not just sitting there feeling like “learning is happening to them”; instead “meaningful learning where students are asking the questions and care about their learning and their progress” is occurring. A DIY school at its finest.

So what would happen if all schools and school systems implemented a version of DIY schools? Would student interest spike? Would motivation increase? Would test scores improve? Educational leaders should stop and think about what a do-it yourself school could do for today’s education. DIY schools may be the answer to these pervasive questions and many more.

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